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Florida GOP Seeks Leadership as Scott Settles In

The Florida Republican Party is struggling to find the crucial political leadership that could determine whether the GOP is successful against President Barack Obama and Sen. Bill Nelson.

While the party appears operationally sound as it prepares for the 2012 elections, Gov. Rick Scott has yet to settle into a leadership role and Republicans are still recovering from some embarrassing 2010 setbacks. Gov. Charlie Crist bolted the GOP and his hand-picked chairman, Jim Greer, resigned amid charges of financial and political mismanagement.

The void is Scott’s to fill. But his transition to party leader has been rocky, as the outsider Republican remains without a base and largely unknown to GOP activists following a 2010 campaign that eschewed traditional grass-roots campaigning for paid media.

Florida Republicans say that could change. Scott has just emerged from a contentious legislative session, and the former multimillionaire hospital executive finally has time to focus on party building and the governor’s natural role as political leader. Whether he does so could influence GOP fortunes in this coveted swing state, where money and a highly organized ground game are required to retake Florida from Obama and oust Nelson.

“It’s an evolving process that comes from the fact that Rick Scott came out of nowhere,” said David Johnson, a well-connected Republican strategist based in Florida. “Time will tell.”

Republicans have a lot riding on Florida and how well the state party organizes for 2012 in advance of the GOP nominee emerging, most likely next spring, particularly with the Republican National Committee still digging out of a financial hole from last cycle. Only once in the past 10 presidential elections has the candidate who won Florida lost the election. (In 1992, Bill Clinton lost Florida to President George H.W. Bush but won the presidency.)

Obama is sure to invest significant resources to retain Florida’s 29 electoral votes, with some predicting the president’s state campaign will spend $100 million. Nelson’s seat is a top Republican target as the GOP eyes a Senate takeover. Florida Republicans view txheir upcoming September presidential straw poll and grass-roots organizing event as a way to solidify the state as a permanent GOP primary battleground, and the Republican National Convention will be held in Tampa.

Some Republicans in the Sunshine State are skeptical of Scott’s ability, even willingness, to embrace the position of political leader. Former two-term Gov. Jeb Bush, who left office in 2007, is still popular and considered by some as the go-to Florida Republican on policy and political matters. Yet others say Scott is already a marked improvement from Crist’s tenure — even from when the failed 2010 Independent Senate candidate was still a Republican.

Scott attended the state GOP’s quarterly meeting in Orlando over the weekend, making the rounds and speaking to party activists about gearing up for 2012. The new governor is supportive of the state GOP’s effort to position Florida as an early primary state on the 2012 nominating calendar and backs the “Presidency 5” straw poll event.

Republicans contend that Crist canceled the 2008 straw poll to protect his favored presidential candidate, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). Crist was thought to be positioning himself in the veepstakes. Florida GOP consultant Rick Wilson likened Crist’s leadership of the party to a “train wreck” that caused it to “collapse.” He said that only Scott and now-Sen. Marco Rubio saved the state GOP from complete catastrophe.

“We were very fortunate that we ended up in 2010 with a governor candidate who was largely self-funding and U.S. Senate candidate who was a national phenomenon and the Republican high watermark for the last 20 years,” said Wilson, the chief consultant for 2012 Senate candidate Adam Hasner.

This summer, county GOP meetings will be held to select delegates to Presidency 5. These gatherings are prime opportunities for Scott to meet with GOP activists and build relationships with the grass roots. Scott’s political and fundraising activities this summer will go a long way toward forecasting the governor’s future as a party leader. Florida GOP Chairman Dave Bitner gives Scott high marks thus far. Scott did not have the political muscle with party insiders to install his own pick into the chairmanship. He eventually threw his support behind Bitner.

Bitner said Scott hit the phones in an aggressive fundraising push for the state GOP after the legislative session ended — the governor will not fundraise during session as a matter of policy — and that he has shown a keen interest in party politics.

“We’ve got a governor who is involved with the party and who is in it for the party,” Bitner told Roll Call. “I might be the only person in Tallahassee that talks to the governor more than they want to. I talk to him at least three times a week and sometimes I talk to him three times a day. It’s not that I’m calling him. … He’s calling me.”

Scott’s office declined to comment for this story, referring questions to the state GOP.

Should Scott not move decisively in the coming months to fill a leadership void that has existed to some degree since Bush left the governor’s mansion, Republicans worry that the party and its 2012 goals might suffer. Rubio is seen as an attractive alternative to Scott should the need arise. Florida Republicans say Rubio has the grass-roots support and political acumen to be the dominant force in the party — if he chooses.

Rubio said in an interview that the Florida GOP needs to advance to “the next level” as it prepares for 2012. But he said the party has functioned well to this point in 2011 and appeared satisfied with Scott’s leadership. The freshman Senator — who suggested his planned political activity on behalf of the state GOP is just doing his part, not filling a void — said he planned to take an active role in the party.

Scott “got sworn in and went right into session — a major session where they seem to have accomplished a lot of things,” Rubio told Roll Call.

“The time for politics will come, and I’m sure when it does he’ll be deeply involved,” Rubio said, adding about himself: “We are actively engaged and try to be engaged in party building, particularly at the local level.”

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