by Scott Powers (Orlando Sentinel)
The Tea Party opens a long-planned convention tonight in Daytona Beach, expecting 1,200 delegates, dozens of speakers — but almost no big-name politicians.
None of the leading Republican presidential candidates and only two of the five U.S. Senate candidates agreed to speak at the three-day Florida Tea Party Convention at the Volusia County Ocean Center.
And top Republican officeholders who have previously courted Tea Party support — Gov. Rick Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and U.S. Rep. Allen West of Plantation — also sent their regrets.
Organizers said they still expect two presidential candidates: U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania. But neither campaign would confirm they’re coming, and their campaign schedules don’t list the convention.
Sid VanLandingham, the convention’s communications director, blamed the busy campaign season, saying a regional event has a tough time competing for attention.
“The [politicians’] schedulers, they’re making last-minute decisions, hopping from place to place, and it’s changing constantly,” he said.
In fact, all of the politicians who responded to Sentinel inquiries cited scheduling conflicts, though the convention dates were set months ago. And their absence leaves many observers puzzled, considering how popular tea-party events have been among most Republican candidates.
Liberals say the depiction of tea partyers as “extremists” — especially on issues such as immigration — is prompting candidates to keep their distance.
“A lot of politicians are worried about being painted by that association, especially as we get into the real meat of the election cycle,” said Mark Ferrulo, executive director of the liberal, Tallahassee-based Progress Florida.
The convention has attracted more than 30 political and social conservatives — many from out of state — as speakers. Among them: John Michael Chambers, founder of the Save America Foundation; Ralph Reed, founder of the Faith & Freedom Coalition; and Mathew Staver, founder of the Liberty Counsel.
VanLandingham, whose home group is the South Lake 912 Tea Party of Clermont, said the big-name politicians might have been a draw, but they are not the point.
“It’s a grass-roots gathering of people from around the state to share what works, what doesn’t work, and to share projects,” he said, citing workshops on how to organize for the 2012 elections.
The only statewide candidates expected to come are Mike McCalister of Plant City and Craig Miller of Winter Park, both underdog candidates for U.S. Senate.
Those who expressly said they are not coming include GOP presidential candidates Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich and Jon Huntsman, and GOP Senate candidates Adam Hasner, George LeMieux and U.S. Rep. Connie Mack.
A whirlwind of controversy in the past two weeks could have played a role, after the convention invited anti-Islam activist Pamela Geller to speak and an American Muslim civil-rights group, the Council of American-Islamic Relations, protested.
“They [CAIR] put pressure, I think, on some of the state officials, and I think some of the state officials, in their judgments, they declined to go,” VanLandingham said. “Their [the officials’] reasons were ‘prior commitments.’ ”
Geller writes an anti-Islam blog called Atlas Shrugs and leads an organization called “Stop Islamization of America.” Last year, she received wide attention — and stoked bitter anger from American Muslim groups — with her harshly worded opposition to a proposed Muslim community center a few blocks from ground zero in New York City.
Last month, CAIR sent letters to Florida politicians urging them not to attend the convention if Geller was on the schedule. And when Rubio and Scott indicated they would not come, CAIR issued a news release thanking them.
Geller said CAIR tries to get her appearances canceled or boycotted wherever she goes. But she said she is certain her appearance in Daytona had nothing to do with all the declined invitations.
“The politicians decided not to participate before this controversy began,” she said in an email.
But CAIR is not so sure.
“In other states, elected officials have pulled out and do not want to be on the same stage as her,” said CAIR media-relations director Ahmed Rehab.