DAYTONA BEACH — At the Florida Tea Party Convention on Saturday, you could find buttons calling for Marco Rubio to be on the presidential ticket, T-shirts declaring that Barack Obama has made communism cool again, and freeze-dried foods to last up to 25 years in case society collapses.
Scarce among the hundreds of conservative activists gathered in Daytona Beach? Any enthusiasm for Mitt Romney, the man widely expected to win the Republican presidential nomination.
"The party establishment has wanted Romney all along, and they've been pushing him on us," lamented James Koll of Fort Dodge, Iowa, who said he would support a third-party candidate or write in a candidate before voting for Romney.
His brother, retiree Don Koll of the Villages in Central Florida, nodded. "Some of these Republicans think they have our votes in the bag no matter what, but they don't," he said, complaining that no top-tier Republican candidates came to the tea party convention. "They're turning their back on us, and they will pay a price."
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It's one of the most critical questions facing Republicans determined to oust Obama: Is the president polarizing enough to energize the Republican base?
If not, Romney's claim that he is the most electable Republican could fall flat.
Consider that John McCain failed to excite much of the Republican base three years ago, when 78 percent of Florida Republicans turned out, compared with 83 percent in 2004. Obama won Florida and the presidency.
It's not lost on many tea party conservatives that after helping Republicans win the U.S. House and elect the likes of Marco Rubio to the Senate and Rick Scott as governor of Florida, they face the prospect of a presidential nominee hardly known for uncompromising conservative leadership. The former Massachusetts governor used to support gun control. He enacted a health care plan on which the federal health care overhaul was modeled. More recently, he refused to initially take a position on whether Ohio should restrict unions' collective-bargaining rights.
"Romney's so wishy-washy. He's on both sides of all these issues, and you never know where he really stands," said retiree Robert Gottschalk of the Villages, who said he might write in the name of a "real conservative" rather than vote for Romney.
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In more than two dozen interviews Saturday with tea party activists mingling at the Ocean Center in Daytona Beach, there was overwhelming consensus: Herman Cain is the preferred candidate, though Newt Gingrich also is growing on them.
Over and over again, people dismissed the significance of sexual harassment allegations against Cain when he led the National Restaurant Association in the late 1990s. No accuser has been named, they said. No specific wrongdoing has been identified. The media are hyping a story without much to it. Settling frivolous complaints is common in any business.
There's no sign of the scandal hurting Cain yet. The campaign reports soaring online fundraising, and a national Washington Post-ABC News poll late last week found Cain neck and neck with Romney, with 23 percent support and 24 percent, respectively.
"I don't buy the electability argument for Romney," said state Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, a top Cain supporter in Florida. "With all the different positions he's had, he may gain some independents, but I'd be concerned about the zeal of our base."
Democrats, aiming their fire almost exclusively at Romney in recent weeks, are echoing the conventional political wisdom that the former venture capitalist is the likely GOP nominee. But don't tell that to those attending the tea party convention.
"I have yet to meet a committed Romney supporter. I don't know why people are trying to make him the inevitable nominee when he's not,'' said Kelly Staples, a tea party activist from Jupiter. "I think you will see an anybody-but-Romney candidate win, and unless there's a bombshell that comes out with these Cain allegations, I think it will probably be him. I think it could also be Newt Gingrich."
Still, some said they would hold their noses and vote for Romney if the choice is between him and Obama.
"Barack Obama is a huge galvanizing force," said Hernando County Republican chairman Blaise Ingoglia, who was on hand to give a "Government Gone Wild" seminar. "Whoever the nominee is, you're going to see tea party people, … Ron Paul people all falling in because getting rid of Barack Obama and stopping what he's doing to this country and to future generations is too important."
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The weekend convention was billed as the biggest tea party gathering ever organized in Florida, but it wound up provoking plenty of disappointment, frustration and anger from activists attending it. Organizers had billed an event featuring a presidential debate, a Florida U.S. Senate debate, and speeches by luminaries including Scott and Rubio.
Presidential candidate Rick Santorum is expected today, and Rubio sent a videotape, but the weekend was devoid of A-list speakers.
None of the major U.S. Senate candidates — Adam Hasner, George LeMeiux or Connie Mack IV — showed up, and neither did any other statewide elected official in Florida.
Several prominent invitees insisted that they in no way meant to snub the group or distance themselves, but that they had never committed to the event as the organizers suggested.
Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com.