ORLANDO, Fla. — The "tea party" opens a long-planned convention Friday night 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 Florida candidates for the U.S. Senate agreed to speak at the three-day Florida Tea Party Convention at the Volusia County Ocean Center.
And top GOP officeholders from Florida 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 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 Orlando Sentinel inquiries cited scheduling conflicts, though the convention dates were set months ago. And their absence puzzles many observers, 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 — has led 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 drawn 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.
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, Atlas Shrugs, and leads an organization called "Stop Islamization of America." Last year, she got wide attention — and stoked bitter anger from U.S. Muslim groups — with her harshly worded opposition to a proposed Muslim community center a few blocks from ground zero in New York City.
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