Mitt: Go South, Young Man

The once-moderate governor woos conservatives in Florida

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click to enlarge CARRYING THE TORCH: Mitt Romney has the backing of a diverse blend of faiths in his bid for president. -  -  -  -  - HIS DAYS ARE NUMBERED -  -  - TargetDate = "01/20/2009 5:00 AM"; - BackColor = "black"; - ForeColor = "white"; - fontFamily = "verdana"; - CountActive = true; - CountStepper = -1; - LeadingZero = true; - DisplayFormat = "%%D%% Days, %%H%% Hours, %%M%% Minutes, %%S%% Seconds."; - FinishMessage = "It is finally here!"; -  -  -  -  -  - Joseph Di Nicola
Joseph Di Nicola
CARRYING THE TORCH: Mitt Romney has the backing of a diverse blend of faiths in his bid for president.

HIS DAYS ARE NUMBERED

With the Jan. 29 Florida primary approaching, we continue our series on all the major candidates for the presidency, with an emphasis on the issues they are discussing and their supporters in Tampa Bay. This week, former Olympics chief and Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney:

The host list for Mitt Romney's $1,000-a-head June fundraiser in St. Petersburg was most noticeable for its fascinating blend of faiths — both the deity-based kind and those who worship more at the altar of capitalism.

There were the prominent Jewish leaders from Pinellas. There were the Southern Baptists. There was the founder of Outback Steakhouses. There was one of the founders of the Hooters chain. (You decide whether that's a business or a religion.) There was a major Florida State University Seminoles booster. (Ditto.)

Then there was the candidate: the first Mormon to be in contention for his party's nomination for the presidency.

Toss in a few Evangelical Christian Romney-backers and the scene would have looked like a Photoshopped mash-up of an interfaith council session and a chamber of commerce meeting. Romney has benefited from influential backers in this state, thanks in no small part to inheriting a large chunk of Jeb Bush's statewide money network and top political operatives. Bush has not publicly endorsed Romney or anyone in the race.

But Team Bush helped Romney become the No. 1 presidential fundraiser in Florida among the Republican candidates in the first quarter of this year. The greater Tampa Bay region contributed more than $100,000 of the nearly $1 million that Romney gathered in this state. He topped the contributions list in Tampa Bay for both parties, and he had the second-highest total (only Democrat Barack Obama raised more) in the Sarasota-Bradenton area, according to the Center for Responsive Government.

That doesn't include the money raised in June in the rotunda-like lobby of the Sembler Co. office on Central Avenue in St. Pete, where more than 100 people gathered to meet Romney or the breakfast meet-and-greet-and-give held that same week in Bradenton at the luxury riverfront home of Sam and Doreen Seider.

Romney's biggest challenge in Florida is the same one he faces nationwide: explaining his marked recent reversals (opponents call them flip-flops) on high-profile wedge social issues, including gay marriage, stem cell research and abortion, all of which he now opposes. In two previous campaigns in Massachusetts, Romney was defiantly pro-choice, insisting he didn't want to impose his personal beliefs on others. One opponent, Sen. Ted Kennedy, quipped that Romney wasn't as much pro-choice as "multiple choice." (Romney has told interviewers that he changed his mind about abortion rights because of the nation's stem-cell debate and the possibility of embryo cloning.)

Not surprisingly, given the prevalence of CEOs among his supporters here, many Romney fans in Tampa Bay cite an issue different from those when asked about why they are backing the candidate: his management experience.

"I am impressed with his business acumen," said Anne Voss, a Tampa Republican political consultant serving as Romney's co-chair for Hillsborough County. "One thing that we need to do that doesn't get discussed very much is to reduce our debt."

Romney has the pro-business chops, for sure. He is the son of a popular Michigan governor who made his fortune as a venture capitalist and management consultant, and went on to foster the much-debated "Massachusetts miracle."

Supporters cite the economic turnaround in that state as evidence of his ability to do the same thing for the nation. Romney, a Republican, was elected in 2002 largely because of its then-looming fiscal crisis — a predicted $3 billion budget shortfall.

That shortfall never fully materialized; the actual deficit ended up being more like $1.3 billion according to the Boston Globe, something that his campaign largely overlooks in promoting his fiscal acumen.

But Romney did slash $1.6 billion from the budget, consolidated the state bureaucracy significantly and turned Massachusetts around without raising income or sales taxes or borrowing money to finance government spending. (Some critics argue, however, that his closing of corporate tax loopholes to balance the budget amounted to a tax increase.)

His tenure also saw Massachusetts adopt a first-in-the-nation plan requiring every state resident to purchase health-care insurance and giving them more affordable options, including a government-subsidized plan. His experiment — a compromise with the Democratic legislature — makes health care more like auto insurance and hasn't been in place long enough for a full assessment of its success.

Before that, Romney worked another turnaround for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, wracked by a bribery scandal and headed for a $379 million shortfall. The games ended up $100 million in the black.

"Look at what he has done: the Olympics, health care in Massachusetts," said Bill "Hoe" Brown, the other co-chair in Hillsborough County and a commercial real-estate developer. "He went up to the Olympics and did a heckuva turnaround job there. Can he do that with our country and run our country like a business like he has done in Massachusetts? I think he can. He's proven that he can over and over again.

It is that kind of assessment that brought several local elected leaders on board early in the campaign, including Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard and St. Petersburg City Councilman Bill Foster. His top elected endorser, however, is St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker, who was named a co-chair of Romney's statewide campaign.

That's simply icing on the cake for the lineup of GOP financial names on board: former Ambassador Mel Sembler and his son Brent; Hooters co-founder Ed Droste; restaurateurs Chris Sullivan and Dave Lageschulte; developers Bing Kearney and Lance Ponton; Jeb confidante and Tampa architect Carlos Alfonso; and Tom James of Raymond James financial.

Romney's supporters in the Sarasota area include Joan and Larry Castellani, whose family made its fortune founding a New York grocery chain and who later served as CEO and chairman of Advance Auto Parts; and Leslie and Dick Rivera, the chairman and CEO of the Sarasota-based company that develops TGI Fridays restaurants.

Many of those Republican fundraisers rarely talk to the media, and they make no exception when it comes to speaking about their work with Romney; almost all of the best-known Tampa Bay area contributors contacted about Romney either declined to give an interview or did not return a reporter's telephone calls.

Romney is also the charismatic candidate of choice for younger Republicans, sort of a reverse image of Obama. He beat yet-to-be-formally-a-candidate Fred Thompson 46 percent to 28 percent in a straw poll at this month's national Young Republicans convention in Miami (although his campaign was chided for having supporters who weren't YR'ers vote).

It is a potentially powerful coalition for a candidate who still lags far behind in Florida polling. It remains to be seen, however, if Romney's religion will keep him from winning the nomination. His supporters insist Mormonism shouldn't be a factor in the election, even if some national polls show that as much as one-third of the population say they would not vote for a Mormon.

"He's the kind that brings people together. He's not an alienator," Brown said. "To be able to bring together Jews and Christians ... and Mormons" in his campaign so far is testimony to that.

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