TAMPA — Rep. Will Weatherford is on the verge of political prominence, and he wants Republicans everywhere to know it.
With his back yard the center of the political universe, the Pasco County Republican is taking advantage at his party's national convention this week by sparring with pundits, dining with House colleagues and doing what Tallahassee politicians do best: raising money.
"I live here," Weatherford said. "I view myself as an ambassador for Tampa Bay."
With typical attention to detail, he hands out laminated postcard-sized cards that note he is "soon to be the youngest House speaker in the United States of America," and that Governing magazine showcased him as one of 12 state "legislators to watch" in 2012. The cards also feature his Twitter handle and how to contact his press spokesman, Ryan Duffy.
In the past couple of days, Weatherford met with MSNBC's Chuck Todd and dined with more than 20 House colleagues at Pane Rustica in Tampa. Today, he will co-host a fundraiser with other GOP legislators at the Tampa home of Nancy Watkins, an accountant who advises Republicans on complying with campaign finance laws.
At age 32, Weatherford will soon follow the path of his father-in-law, Allan Bense of Panama City, who was speaker from 2004-06. When he occupies the speaker's spacious fourth-floor suite in November, he will be the youngest person to hold the office since 1957, when 28-year-old Doyle Conner used it as a springboard for a long career as state agriculture commissioner.
Clean-cut and well-spoken, Weatherford is well-liked in Tallahassee, but his comments about President Barack Obama at a convention event have reverberated across the state and antagonized Florida Democrats.
At a Faith and Freedom Coalition luncheon Monday, Weatherford said: "Here's the problem with the president. The president does not believe in the American idea. He does not believe in the foundation, the very pillars that this country was founded upon. He does not share that world view."
Rep. Perry Thurston, D-Plantation, the incoming House Democratic leader, said he was disgusted to see Weatherford join Republicans who seek to demonize the president by questioning his patriotism.
"I'm appalled by those comments. They're beneath the dignity of the incoming speaker of the Florida House," Thurston said. "I had the expectation of less partisan rhetoric and a more respectful tone. We can disagree without denigrating someone's patriotism."
Asked to elaborate on his comments, Weatherford insisted that Obama "has a problem ... with the freedoms this country was founded upon." He cited the health care overhaul "that forces everybody in this country to buy a product, and if they don't buy it, they're taxed. That's not freedom."
Weatherford tiptoed around the issue of whether abortion should be illegal even in cases of rape or incest. "That's a personal decision by a lot of people," he said. "But to me, our focus in Florida should not be on that. It should be how do we create a better economy for our children."
Weatherford was once dismissed as too young to be speaker. But he grew up quickly when then-Speaker Ray Sansom was engulfed by scandal in 2008 for secretly steering tens of millions of dollars to a Panhandle college. Weatherford helped to orchestrate Sansom's exit as speaker.
He disappointed some House GOP colleagues for overseeing a redrawing of legislative districts that have endangered some of their re-election bids, and predicted Democrats will gain several seats this fall. Republicans currently hold an 81-38 advantage in the House, with one seat vacant.
Weatherford's counterpart leading the Senate will be Republican Don Gaetz of Niceville, in the Panhandle, who at 64 is old enough to be his father. "He's 64 and I'm 32," Weatherford said. "I tell him he's twice the man that I am."
Times staff writer Katie Sanders contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.