The future of Florida politics was on display in Tampa over the weekend, and it was fun to watch.
Republicans were enjoying breakfast at Saturday's quarterly meeting of the state party leadership at the Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay. Despite the constant clanging of dishware and the rushing around of servers, nobody had trouble hearing the words of Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.
The fifth-generation Floridian from Bartow's citrus and cattle belt has a real feel for his state that can't be memorized as a talking point.
First, he was funny.
Upon discovering that the hotel parking garage was off-limits to extended cab trucks, he said, "I'm thinking, surely they don't mean me," as his truck's antenna scraped the garage roof.
"They're discriminating against two-thirds of the vehicles in Polk County," Putnam said.
He was partisan. The redheaded Putnam knows how to dish red meat, garnishing his one-liners with references to Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton, Charlie Crist, John Morgan and, of course, President Barack Obama.
He was blunt.
Putnam reminded everyone how depressed Republicans felt after Obama carried the state a second time in 2012.
"I was shocked," Putnam said. "And folks, we can't let that happen this cycle. We've got to keep Rick Scott in the Governor's Mansion."
He confronted a seeming lack of enthusiasm about Scott by conjuring up images of Crist helping Hillary Clinton become the next president.
Ridiculing Crist's "cotton candy populism," Putnam said, "The helium in his inaugural balloons lasts longer than his attention span." The line brought a rousing ovation.
Putnam goes for the jugular, but with his boyish looks, he doesn't come off as mean.
"Raise your hand if you've attended a Lincoln Day dinner when Charlie Crist has claimed to be either a Ronald Reagan, Connie Mack or Jeb Bush Republican," Putnam said.
More laughter and applause.
Putnam's a big Republican asset because he can tell the Rick Scott story better than Scott can, as he cited the drop in the state's violent crime rate, a surge in tourism numbers and a strong credit rating.
"Florida, for many people, is a reward, a prize for a life well-lived somewhere else," he said, adding that it also has to be much more than that, too.
Putnam, 39, is in a good political place right now. He seems content to wait his turn to run for governor in 2018, which means he has the benefit of spending the next four years building a statewide political organization in case anyone else has notions of seeking the GOP nomination.
In all likelihood, the governorship in 2018 will either be open — because a term-limited Scott will be leaving office — or occupied by Crist. The latter would be a nightmare scenario for many Republicans, and they would be all the more determined to get a Republican back into the mansion.
As Putnam left the stage, people rushed up to grab his hand.
"Great speech!" shouted Pam Hinds, a Pinellas County Republican activist. "I loved the helium!"
Contact Steve Bousquet at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.