TREASURE ISLAND — The choice of U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan as Mitt Romney's vice presidential running mate sparked so much interest within the Florida GOP that organizers of a fundraiser tonight had to scramble to find a bigger venue.
Initially, former ambassador and developer Mel Sembler planned to throw the reception at his office, which holds up to 100. But the Ryan pick prompted a move to the Club at Treasure Island, where Sembler's a member and there's banquet space for 350.
"There was so much interest," Sembler said. "People were calling trying to get an invite. "
Ryan's first Florida fundraiser is at least one indication that the favorite with libertarians and archconservatives is also being embraced by the state's usual suspects, donors and bundlers who rake in the big money for campaigns year after year.
"This party is a big tent," Sembler said. "Ryan is a great Republican who got elected in a Democratic state like Wisconsin, so he can work both sides of the aisle. He's generated more excitement than other picks would have."
And yet longtime supporters of Ryan view his selection as a refutation of the GOP establishment.
"I thought Romney was going to go with a safe and boring choice," said Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks, the national advocacy group associated with the tea party. "The old Republican guard is risk averse. So we were happy to see Ryan get picked. It's about big ideas now."
Ryan is heavily supported by tea party groups like FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity, along with billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch. Democrats say he represents the most extreme ideological beliefs of the GOP.
Today, Ryan will be surrounded by the state's Republican establishment.
First, he makes a campaign stop at the Villages — developed by one of the most reliable Republican contributors, H. Gary Morse. He'll be accompanied by his mother, who lives part-time in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea.
Then it's off to the Club at Treasure Island, where Ryan will be feted by such perennials as Morse, Sembler, GOP finance chairman Akshay "A.K." Desai, and John Rood, a Jacksonville real estate developer. U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young and Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, will be there as well, Sembler said.
The event's host committee includes people like William Isaac, who says he prizes bipartisanship. Isaac says he supported Romney in a crowded GOP field last year because he believed the former Massachusetts governor seemed the most capable of working with Democrats.
For the past year, Isaac and his wife, Christine, have volunteered for the Romney campaign, hosting a fundraiser in their Sarasota home and helping throw another event in Tampa. Isaac said he'd be attending today's Treasure Island reception even if Romney had chosen someone other than Ryan.
"He's an inspired choice, he's very bright," Isaac said. "He's brought enthusiasm to the base more than anyone I know."
Don't expect much tension within the Florida GOP on the Ryan pick, said Greg Truax, a Tampa publisher of marketing materials.
"It's going to be a very successful fundraiser, judging from the Republican stalwarts on that list," said Truax, who was John McCain's Hillsborough County chair in 2008.
Truax cited the 2010 Florida governor's race where the party establishment supported Bill McCollum until he lost to Rick Scott. Then they lined up behind Scott.
"They'll line up for Ryan, too," Truax said. "That's what's to be expected. It's not unusual."
It wasn't until Wednesday that the owner of the club, Bill Edwards, discovered that the fundraiser was to be held there.
In the haste in which arrangements were made, Edwards said he found out after the invitations were sent out.
A registered Republican who sits on the Republican National Convention's nonpartisan Tampa Bay host committee, Edwards said he's staying out of politics until after both conventions are over. But he said he will be attending the fundraiser.
"There's some big names on the host committee," Edwards said. "But then again, they are trying to raise a lot of money."