ORLANDO, Fla. — The next three days amount to a virtual GOP-palooza in Florida, a state so determined to have a big say in picking the Republican presidential nominee that it is considering a nose-thumbing of national party rules by moving its primary up to February, thereby suffering the penalty of losing half its 100-plus delegates to the national nominating convention.
Orlando is hosting not only the first Conservative Political Action Conference outside the nation's capital, but also a candidates debate with Mitt Romney, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and other GOP hopefuls — including the oft-neglected Gary Johnson, former governor of New Mexico.
But wait, there's more: A straw poll that state party organizers say will be significant, despite its getting a cold shoulder from Mr. Romney and Mrs. Bachmann.
And as an extra added attraction, Ralph Reed's Faith and Freedom Coalition is kicking the whole thing off with a Thursday rally before the Fox News debate that night.
Floridians aren't shy about reminding the national party and the campaigns that the GOP nominee can't make it to the White House without the state's 29 electoral college votes — or that since Ronald Reagan in 1979, every winner of the GOP nomination first won the Florida straw poll.
Still, most candidates are taking a low-key approach to Saturday's poll. Mr. Romney and Mrs. Bachmann, for example, will be on the ballot but plan to skip Saturday's lineup of speeches scheduled by the other contenders.
The Orlando straw poll isn't the usual hanky-panky affair straw polls are elsewhere, where campaigns buy fistfuls of tickets to hand out and urge recipients to vote.
Instead, Orlando will have 3,500 voting delegates selected by the state party, which will apportion votes according to GOP registration in Florida counties. Delegates will be selected from applicants wiling to shell out a $175 attendance fee.
"The outcome of this straw poll is likely to reflect the actual strength in Florida of the candidates and predict how the state will vote" in the GOP presidential nomination primary next year,says state party spokesman Brian Hughes.
The debate presence/poll absence of Mr. Romney and Mrs. Bachmann may be the smart political move for the two candidates.
Mrs. Bachmann has slipped significantly in national polls — down to 5 percent in the latest Gallup survey — since she won Iowa's Ames Straw Poll on Aug. 13.
Florida Republicans say she doesn't want to risk further setback, not with Texas Gov. Rick Perry having replaced her as the No. 1 heartthrob of the GOP's social conservatives. The Texas governor jumped into GOP nomination battle last month, ran straight to the head of the class and has stayed there.
Mr. Romney's stiff-arming the Florida poll stems from his not wanting to drop millions of dollars to participate in that Iowa GOP-fundraiser/straw poll only to lose to Mrs. Bachmann. So he didn't participate and he did lose to Mrs. Bachmann by a count of 4,823 votes to 567 votes.
Texas Rep. Ron Paul's diehard supporters note that he placed second in Ames with 4,671 votes.
Mr. Romney, having made himself a defender of Florida's voters who now — or soon will — depend on Social Security, could expect to do far better in Florida, which has a smaller proportion of evangelicals than Iowa. But the former Massachusetts governor doesn't want to offend Iowa Republicans by participating in Orlando after having nixed Ames, so he politely explained that reasoning to the Florida party leaders beforehand.
CPAC has held 38 annual meetings in the D.C. area but never outside the Washington Beltway.
"We are working hand-in-hand with local think tanks, tea party groups and conservative elected leaders in the state," said CPAC Chairman Al Cardenas, a former Florida GOP chairman who lives in Miami.
"It's working," he said.
He said more than 3,000 activists will be in attendance at Friday's Florida CPAC and after Thursday night's debate and Friday's CPAC, "delegates will have had a chance to see live and in person the candidates that they will be voting for on Saturday. This has never happened before and the performance of the candidates at these prior events is bound to impact the outcome of the straw poll."
He added that "since it's a convening of GOP activists, I am forecasting that the better polling candidates will do rather well."
Fox News Channel is broadcasting the debate on Thursday at 9 p.m. and C-SPAN is covering the 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. candidates' speeches Friday at CPAC.
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