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GOP Hopefuls Court Florida Faithful

This story was written by political reporter Brian Montopoli.

Four thousand Florida Republican activists -- from college students clutching homemade signs supporting their favorite candidate to rank-and-file party members trying to make up their minds -- descended on an Orlando resort Saturday for "Presidency IV," a fundraiser and conference that will culminate in a Fox News-sponsored Republican debate Sunday night.

Thanks to the timing of its late January primary, Florida is likely to be a key state in deciding the Republican nominee. "I think she is going to decide it," said Florida Gov. Charlie Crist in an interview at Presidency IV. "Florida is a microcosm of this country. I think Jan. 29th we will know who the next nominee for president will be."

Perhaps that's why all four frontrunners for the Republican nomination -- Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson -- paid the state party $100,000 for the chance to speak to the party faithful at a candidates rally on Saturday afternoon. (It is a state party fundraiser, after all.)

A loose and energetic Giuliani spent much of his speech aggressively attacking Hillary Clinton, "Hillarycare," and the Democrats, who, he said, could turn America into "a country of overspending, overtaxing, over-regulating, and oversuing." The crowd of grassroots activists responded enthusiastically to Giuliani, particularly when he discussed national security issues.

"In security of the United States, he's one of the people who would do well," said Odaria Kira, a Republican from Saint Augustine. But she said she had to weigh Giuliani's security credentials against his position on social issues. "It's that abortion issue and the gay marriage issue," she said. She is considering Giuliani and Romney, she said, with Thompson on "the back of the burner."

McCain, a more subdued speaker than the former New York mayor, got a somewhat cooler -- though still supportive -- reception from the crowd. He spent the opening section of his speech attacking "out of control spending" and vowing to "veto every single pork barrel bill that comes across my desk." He also spoke about his early and unwavering defense of the Iraq war and the importance of not allowing Iran to acquire nuclear weapons.

"I used to be a big McCain fan back in 2000, but since then I've seen him sort of shift his positions and pander to the Christian Coalition wing of our party, which, to be honest, I wasn't very happy with," said Chris Gangler, who had come to Presidency IV with his father in search of a candidate to support.

McCain, like Giuliani, largely avoided hot-button social issues, though not entirely. Perhaps the most striking moment of his speech came when he attacked an amendment from Clinton and Sen. Chuck Schumer for "$1 million for a Woodstock concert museum."

"Now, I wasn't there at the time -- I happened to be in prison -- but is that a cultural event you'd like to remember?" asked McCain angrily. "I don't think so. I don't think so. No one, no one who frivolously spends your tax dollars in that fashion is qualified to be president of the United States."

Romney and Thompson, unlike their rivals, put the spotlight squarely on their families. Both walked onstage with their wives; Romney gave the microphone to his wife Ann for brief comments and mentioned the fact that his son Tagg was in attendance. His wife mentioned their ten grandchildren and joked about her husband.

The former Massachusetts governor, who is making a push for the support of cultural conservatives, returned again and again to the importance of strong values. "One way I know we strengthen families is making sure our kids know, before they have babies, they should get married," he said to applause.

Thompson's speech was brief and short on specifics, and it seemed to disappoint the assembled crowd. Before the actor and former senator came out, however, a short film about Thompson garnered applause for its references to conservative heroes Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater. (None of the candidates mentioned Pres. George W. Bush.)

"Thompson has turned me off," said Wayne Gangler. "I don't think he's energetic enough. He's just too lackadaisical for me. I want somebody with energy."

At a luncheon earlier in the day, Florida Republican Party chair Jim Greer stressed the importance of unifying behind the eventual Republican nominee.

"The only successful strategy that the Democrats can use to win the White House is to divide the Republican Party," he said, adding: "We must ensure that we support our nominee with every ounce of energy that each one of us possess."

Crist, the Florida governor, spoke at the luncheon of the importance of fighting climate change. His comments drew a subdued response from the crowd. Melissa Iglesias, treasurer of the Florida chapter of Republicans For Environmental Protection, conceded that convincing Republicans to support the issues close to her can be an uphill battle.

"It's because of the perceived idea that you cannot balance sustainability and conservation with economic growth, and that's untrue," she said. "You can. But it's hard to initially get their ear, because anytime they think of anything conservation, they think of crazy tree huggers, if you will, that would just want all of the Western democratic civilization to perish so that the little critters could roam the earth freely."

The national chapter of the Republicans For Environmental Protection has endorsed McCain.

Crist, who has not endorsed a candidate, declined to comment on whether a Republican candidate could be successful campaigning on issues such as climate change. But he did say Florida Republicans are perhaps more concerned about environmental issues than Republicans nationally, and explained the issues he believes are most important to Sunshine State Republicans.

"The most important among them are a national catastrophic fund to help us with hurricanes and help other states with earthquakes and other natural disasters," said Crist. "In addition to that, Florida is very concerned about making sure that we don't have people in the White House who want to drill off our coasts for oil. And we want to make sure that we protect our Everglades."

A recent poll by Quinnipiac University showed Giuliani in the lead in Florida, with 27 percent of the vote; he's followed by Thompson at 19 percent, Romney at 17 percent, and McCain at 8 percent. It likely doesn't hurt Giuliani that Florida is a popular retirement destination for New Yorkers -- he joked in his speech that "sometimes I see more people from New York in Florida than I do in New York."

Juan Carlos Bermudez, mayor of Doral, Fla., who endorsed Giuliani, said the key issues for Florida Republicans are fiscal conservatism, respect for individual liberty, and lower taxes -- "the core Republican principles."

The importance of such core principles came up more than once at Presidency IV.

"I'm looking for a candidate who has always had traditional, consistent conservative positions," said Chris Gangler. "Right now the candidates I see out there, none of them really grab my fancy yet. I'd like to see a return to traditional conservative government spending -- smaller government, smaller taxes, certainly like to see something done about the immigration."

"I guess what we're looking for is a candidate who has the political courage to do what's right for the country," he added, "instead of just coming to Florida and telling us what we want to hear."
By Brian Montopoli