A Quinnipiac University poll released Tuesday found that about 9 in 10 Florida voters do not know enough about the four Republicans running to succeed Marco Rubio in the U.S. Senate to have an opinion of them. And probably more than a few people in that poll exaggerated their awareness of Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, defense contractor Todd Wilcox, and U.S. Reps. David Jolly and Ron DeSantis.
So we were especially interested in checking out the foursome's rare joint appearance in Tampa on Saturday to see if anyone stood out before a crowd of several hundred activists gathered for the Republican Party of Florida's quarterly meeting.
Conventional political wisdom has it that northeast Florida's DeSantis, an Iraq War veteran and alum of Yale and Harvard Law, is the anti-establishment candidate, while Jolly and Lopez-Cantera are vying to emerge as the more mainstream conservative alternative. Wilcox, a special forces and CIA combat veteran from Orlando, is a political newcomer and the wildcard underdog.
None of these guys stood out Saturday, either as especially strong or especially weak, as they spoke for about 10 minutes each, and barely mentioned one another. Some impressions:
The anti-Washington message: Former state House member and Miami-Dade property appraiser Lopez-Cantera, 41, embraced that most effectively. "Washington candidates and Washington elected officials are very good at telling you what the problem is, they're very good at pointing fingers. … What they're not very good at is getting things done. I'm tired of it. I've been here in Florida getting things done, I've been here in Florida doing things while others only talk about it."
Most substantive: Jolly, 42, ticked off the most issue positions on everything from budgeting intricacies and opposition to Race to the Top education funding, to immigration, veterans' health care and trade.
Most absurd hyperbole: DeSantis, 36, came close: "I am sick and tired of an administration that treats Raul Castro and (Iran's) Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, better than it treats the prime minister of Israel."
But then Wilcox, 49, pretty much declared Democratic leaders enemies of the state: "Obama, Hillary, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, are out to fundamentally destroy America. I believe that in my heart. They could not have done this without deliberately trying to degrade our capacity and our capability on the world stage."
Toughest applause line: From Wilcox: "I have faced our enemy — and sent some of them to their maker."
Best swag: DeSantis, a former Little League star from Dunedin, held a reception Friday night where activists could help themselves to plastic DeSantis baseball caps filled with popcorn.
Most at ease: Lopez-Cantera is a former Republican state committeeman from Miami-Dade, a fellow state party executive committee member with many of those in the room. "I love quarterlies!" he said of the quarterly party meeting, offering to help anyone with fundraising events for their county parties.
Subtlest (weakest?) swipe at a primary rival: Jolly denounced "the scorecard community" in Washington, referring to the interest groups that annually score members of Congress based on how often they vote for or against bills backed by that group. Several conservative groups — such as the Club for Growth, FreedomWorks, and Tea Party Express — are backing DeSantis and have criticized Jolly for voting against a bill to repeal the estate tax.
Jolly supports repealing the estate tax, but said he could not support that without a plan to pay for it.
"We have Washington Republicans who earlier this year voted in the name of entitlement reform and balanced budgets to add $400 billion in national debt," Jolly said, referring without explanation to that position favored by DeSantis and most other House Republicans. "Folks, that is Washington math. That is go-along, get-along, look-the-other way Washington math that has gotten us down this fiscal cliff of $18 trillion in national debt."
Strangest audience warm-up: Wilcox spent several minutes asking assorted demographic questions: "If you're African-American raise your hand. (Few hands went up.) We need more of you in this room. … If you've been divorced raise your hand. If you've been divorced twice raise your hand," he said, raising his own.
Most careful positioning alongside Rick Scott: Gov. Rick Scott remains neutral in the U.S. Senate race despite his running mate and lieutenant governor being in the mix. While praising Scott's record, Lopez-Cantera sounded like he agreed to become Scott's lieutenant governor largely to protect the state from Charlie Crist.
"In 2014, when the conventional wisdom was that Charlie Crist was going to beat Rick Scott — and some of the polling showed he was down to Charlie Crist by 10 points — that's when I said, 'Yes, I'm up for this fight,' " Lopez-Cantera said. "And we all fought together last year, and we all proved that Charlie Crist is not this unbeatable force."