Sorry Florida Republicans, but Mitt Romney won't be lavishing the kind of attention and money on you that many activists had expected.
The Republican presidential frontrunner's campaign said Thursday night it will not be participating in the Florida GOP's "Presidency 5" straw poll in September — or any other heavily hyped nonbinding election this year. It's a sharp departure from four years ago when Romney spent generously on early grass roots organizing and efforts to boost his momentum in Florida and other key states.
"Our campaign has made the decision to not participate in any straw polls, whether it's in Florida, Iowa, Michigan or someplace else,'' said Romney campaign manager Matt Rhoades. "We respect the straw poll process. In the last presidential campaign we were both strengthened as an organization and learned some important lessons by participating in them. This time we will focus our energies and resources on winning primaries and caucuses. We look forward to bringing Mitt Romney's strong pro-jobs message to every part of the country."
In a statement, Republican Party of Florida executive director Andy Palmer called Romney's decision "unfortunate."
"With thousands of activists signed up to attend, the event would have been the perfect opportunity to communicate his message directly to Republican voters in the most important swing state in the nation," Palmer said.
So-called straw polls are nonbinding elections that typically feature the most die-hard activists. While officially meaningless, they can help shape perceptions and expectations for candidates and show the organizational strength of a campaign.
In 2007, Romney spent millions of dollars in Iowa preceding its widely watched Ames straw poll, but Mike Huckabee drew much of the attention with a strong second place showing. Huckabee wound up winning the Iowa caucuses, and this year Romney has hinted he may not make Iowa a top priority.
The Ames straw poll is set for Aug. 13, while Florida and Michigan scheduled straw polls for late September.
Friday is the deadline for delegates to register for the Florida GOP's Presidency 5 weekend, and party officials say more than 3,500 people already have applied. In addition to the straw poll, it will feature a Fox News debate. Romney will participate in the debate.
As for the straw poll, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman said Thursday that he would participate if he formally entered the race, and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty has signaled to some party officials that he will participate.
"Should Gov. Huntsman enter the race for the Republican nomination for president, we fully intend to compete in the Republican Party of Florida's Presidency 5 Straw Poll," said Susie Wiles, executive director of H-PAC and northeast Florida resident. "Gov. Huntsman has made it abundantly clear that if he runs, he will campaign aggressively in Florida and base his campaign in his wife's hometown of Orlando. We feel very confident that the fresh leadership and problem-solving conservative record Gov. Huntsman offers will resonate with Florida's Republican voters."
Romney's announcement is sure to disappoint party regulars, but even without an overt campaign he could fare well in the straw poll without having to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on it. He already has extensive Florida support from his last campaign and leads in early Florida polls.
"The campaign's decision to not participate in any straw polls makes strategic sense," said state Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, a prominent Romney backer. "It's smart for him to focus his time and resources on winning the actual primary."
Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com.