PLANT CITY — U.S. Rep. Allen West thanked a gathering of Republican faithful for turning out in force to see him instead of going to the new Captain America movie.
Plant City Mayor Dan Raulerson spoke for the 350 in attendance when he said no apologies were necessary when West had finished speaking. He said they just met the real deal.
West, who was involved in the recent dustup with fellow South Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, was indeed given a super hero's welcome at the Florida Strawberry Festival grounds.
He was in town as keynote speaker for what the Hillsborough County Republican Party calls its "Summer Dinner — Issues and Ideas."
West was greeted by a standing ovation as he entered the hall at the Arthur Boring Civic Center, and would get three more. It took him half an hour to take his seat as a crush of fans gathered to pump his hand and pose for photographs.
Karen Jaroch, chairman of the Tampa 912 Project, described West as "willing to stand up and give voice to things most of the people in this room believe in. He says what's on his mind. He's the real deal."
West, R-Plantation, drew attention for speaking his mind this week when he described Wasserman Schultz, a Broward County Democrat, as the "most vile, unprofessional, and despicable member of U.S. House of Representatives."
His salvo was sent by e-mail after Wasserman Schultz criticized him on the House floor for supporting a GOP-backed deficit-cutting proposal.
The topic never came up during Saturday's speech as reporters were not allowed to ask West questions.
But part of his speech was devoted to defending the legislation he backed and Wasserman Schultz criticized. That legislation included cuts to entitlement spending and a plan for a balanced-budget amendment. West was elected in 2010, pushing out a Democratic incumbent.
He has quickly joined the ranks of what Hillsborough Republican Party chief Deborah Cox-Roush said she calls the "feisty freshmen," unyielding budget hawks unafraid to speak their mind.
The freshman Republican stoked the crowd with a red-meat speech that emphasized the need to rein in deficit spending and prevent the creep of socialism into the federal government.
"America is dangling at the precipice with one leg dangling over the edge," he said.
His speech spoke directly to his tea party roots, but also to his military background. He urged support of a flat tax, contending 47 percent of working Americans don't pay taxes, placing the burden on the "producers" in the economy.
Fielding a question later, he lived up to his plain-spoken reputation in saying he opposed the ending of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which allows gays to serve in the military so long as they don't talk about their sexuality. He said people who join the military are required to conform to its rules, not the other way around.
How could he take that position as a former Army colonel who is black, he asked rhetorically. "I can't change my color," West said.
Republicans young and old praised West as having a promising future in Congress.
"You just saw the future of the Republican Party," said former Hillsborough County Commissioner Chris Hart.
Sharon Calvert, co-founder of the Tampa Tea Party, said that West, through his speech Saturday and in his exchange with Wasserman Schultz, has proved himself as a person who speaks his mind and lives his convictions.
"I think he gets exactly what's on people's minds and he doesn't need a TelePrompTer to say it," Calvert said.