Republicans' ideological battle on display at Florida's Sunshine Summit

Diverse candidates underscore the party's battle over ideological direction.

Published November 14 2015
Updated December 15 2015

ORLANDO — A couple thousand Republicans spent the past two days at a resort here listening to speeches from the party's diverse bench of presidential candidates. But the real drama was 25 miles away at a megachurch where Sen. Ted Cruz declared war on illegal immigration, the crowd rising with a passion somewhat missing across town.

The contrast cuts to the state of the 2016 race for the Republican nomination.

Less than three months from the first contests, the field is unsettled and mired in conflict about the ideological direction of the party and an overlapping clash of insiders vs. outsiders and hybrids such as Cruz.

"We have a really good chance of winning, but this primary is really becoming very unstable. It's at a tipping point. If we don't right it, we're in trouble," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., one of the speakers at the Republican Party of Florida's Sunshine Summit, said in an interview.

Donald Trump remains at the top of most polls, defying predictions he would fade. Outlandish as ever, he has begun assembling a ground campaign in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Ben Carson has challenged Trump's position as the reigning outsider and proven himself equally durable. In an extraordinary scene Friday, Carson was asked during a news conference to respond to Trump likening him to a "child molester."

Meantime, conventional candidates such as Florida's Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush are battling to stand out if the frontrunners stumble — an expectation many still cling to. The race has gotten increasingly contentious and last week saw the resurgence of the explosive issue of immigration, reviving fears among party leaders that rhetoric will dig a deeper hole among Hispanic voters.

"The world has gone a little mad on our side," said Cindy Graves of Jacksonville, past president of the Florida Federation of Republican Women. "Republicans have never seen this kind of brass-knuckled primary. If I'm not frightened, it's because I have faith that American voters will make the right decision in the end."

"I don't think the Republican Party as a brand and our long-term future can be successful given what I'm watching," said Al Cardenas, former head of the state GOP. "To be successful you have to appeal to people's higher instincts, not lower instincts. You have to inspire people to be better, not to be mad or angry. And you've got to convince them you can lead them to a better tomorrow, rather than to get even with the bad guys. If our party is unable to do that through our eventual leadership, then our party is going to face some long-term consequences."

Others say tension is natural, especially given such a large field of candidates, and will work itself out.

"I think it's great for the party. You get to see a wide array of different candidates all bringing different strengths and weaknesses," said Peter Feaman, a Republican national committeeman from Palm Beach County. "Let the American people weed it all out."

The 2012 Republican primary experienced gyrations. Yet through it all, Mitt Romney never plummeted to second-tier status. After eight years of President Barack Obama, the GOP faces good odds but Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton has only one credible opponent, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and she has gotten stronger in recent weeks.

"Our party outside of Washington is having its best years ever," said Cardenas, referring to a steady gain of Republican governors and legislatures. "The dichotomy of where our party is nationally and where our party is in Washington is striking."

Washington is defining the unusual contours of the race. Fed up with the way things work there, Republican activists have turned to outsiders such as Trump and Carson, both of whom got more enthusiastic receptions at the summit in Orlando than other candidates. Polls consistently show them leading, including a national Reuters/Ipsos survey released Friday that had Trump with 34 percent support and Carson 20 percent, double that of third-place Rubio. Cruz got 8 percent and Bush got 6 percent.

Bush, once the leader, used a gathering of supporters in Orlando to urge patience. Still, Bush more than anyone has been hurt by Trump, who has attacked the former governor as "low energy" and soft on immigration.

Trump's antics and lack of details — "There's going to be a real wall," on the U.S.-Mexico border, he said in his speech Friday, "There's going to be a Trump wall!" — have not hurt him. A day earlier in Iowa he unfurled a profanity-laced tirade against Carson, questioning aspects of his life story and asserting an untruthfulness no different to the sickness of a child molester. Carson told reporters in Orlando that he didn't pay attention to the taunts.

"I'm concerned Trump is still at the front with a lot of the stupid things he says," remarked Kyle Foley, 19, a sophomore at the University of Central Florida who attended the summit and likes Rubio, also the subject of Trump's onslaught.

Another sign of the unsettled nature of the race is how home-state favorites Bush and Rubio are no longer a given to win Florida's March 15 primary, vividly captured by Cruz's church rally Friday. Cruz outlined a hard-line immigration policy and sought to draw a contrast with Rubio, who helped author the Senate's 2013 comprehensive bill but has reversed course and advocates a piecemeal approach that plays down his support for a path to citizenship.

"I haven't been able to really trust Rubio," said Don Forward, 76, of Titusville, who attended the Cruz rally. "And no more Bushes. Period. I don't know anybody in the conservative movement going for Jeb or Rubio, especially Jeb."

Cruz's rally showed how volatile the immigration debate can be and candidates at the summit tried to one-up each other. Sen. Rand Paul, during a speech Saturday, accused Rubio of cutting a "secret" deal with Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., to block amendments to the 2013 immigration bill, a claim Rubio's campaign scoffed at.

"Had I not talked about illegal immigration, I don't even think you'd be talking about it," Trump bragged Friday evening. "I watched Ted Cruz. And I watched Marco Rubio. They're fighting over who's tougher. Well, let me tell you something: I was tougher when it wasn't very politically popular to be tough, and I took a lot of heat."

If president, he vowed, people in the country illegally "are out of here. They are gone."

Two days earlier many of the same people in the audience attended a state GOP dinner featuring former Vice President Dick Cheney, who said the party needs to improve its standing with Hispanic voters.

"I think it's absolutely essential we reach out and build a base as broad as we can," Cheney said, noting the 44 percent of the Hispanic vote he and George W. Bush got in 2004. Without it, he said, "given how close that election was, we'd have been in big trouble."

As the summit closed Saturday afternoon, Vikki Franks stood in a vast ballroom and said all the candidates presented themselves well (she likes Paul best) but lamented that "it's hard to know who will be our nominee."

"We really need to beat the Democrats," said Franks, a Republican executive committee member in Volusia County. "But at least we live in a country where we can do this. In another country they might tell us who to vote for."

Miami Herald staff writer Patricia Mazzei contributed to this report. Contact Alex Leary at [email protected] Follow @learyreports. Contact Adam C. Smith at [email protected] Follow @adamsmithtimes.

         
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