Daytona Beach News-Journal, David Tucker, AP Photo
In this Thursday, Nov. 3, 2011 photo, Aileen Milton and Lynda DeHart slide a life-sized cutout of Uncle Sam in place while setting up for the Tea Party Convention in Daytona Beach, Fla., at the Ocean Center.
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Tea party organizers in Florida are seeking more influence in electing candidates, yet the most prominent Republicans invited to participate in the groups' first statewide convention didn't bother to show up.
Gov. Rick Scott, who held his first budget proposal announcement in a church filled with tea party groups, and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, whose surprising political rise began with tea party events, both declined invitations.
So did former U.S. Sen. George LeMieux and former state Rep. Adam Hasner, who are seeking the Republican nomination for Senate next year. And it appeared only one presidential candidate planned to participate in a debate scheduled for Sunday.
"It's a little disappointing because I know their appearance would motivate people," said Steve Riggs of Wesley Chapel, who was selling political parody T-shirts. "These guys at their own peril don't show up. These people are like evangelists. They're out there talking to their neighbors and talking at their churches."
Campaigns said they had other commitments, but it's also likely that some chose not to go because tea party events can be unwieldy and they didn't want to risk getting in an awkward situation. When the Republican Party of Florida organized a debate and straw poll, there was full participation from the presidential and Senate candidates.
"There's a little bit of wariness about aligning oneself with groups like Occupy Wall Street or the tea party. There's just a little bit of concern that maybe things can turn bad," said University of South Florida political science professor Susan MacManus, who attended the convention to observe it. "Candidates these days are a little bit cautious about events that they don't know 100 percent what they're going to turn out like."
Scott, a former hospital chain CEO, closely tied himself to the tea party movement when he ran for election last year and during his first months in office. However, he has been trying to broaden his appeal, engaging more with traditional media and participating in work days where he takes on a different job for a day.
"My understanding of the tea party, what they're focused on is limited government, following the Constitution, which are things I believe in. I hope they have a great convention," Scott said Friday.
U.S. Senate candidates Craig Miller and Mike McCalister did attend the event, as did three candidates who are virtually unknown to voters — Deon Long, Marielena Stuart and Ron McNeil. According to campaign finance reports, Long had $2,200 in his account and Stuart $51 at the end of September. The Federal Elections Commission didn't have a report available for McNeil.
"Everyone at this event this weekend is a voter. They're also passionate and interested in the future of our country," said Miller, the former Ruth's Chris Steak House CEO. "I wouldn't miss it. Why would I miss it."
McCalister said the tea party groups are an important part of the conservative movement and Republicans need to unite rather compete among themselves.
Pam Dahl of The Villages, who organized the event, said candidates often make decisions based on how many cameras will be there and how much news coverage they'll get.
"Also, what people are going to be there and what kind of questions are going to be asked. The tea parties are very strong with their questions and we're asking both the presidential candidates and the senatorial candidates a lot of good questions that haven't been asked before," Dahl said.
Senate candidates forum held Saturday did produce questions that you wouldn't expect at a more traditional debate.
Candidates were asked if the United States should not send aid to another country after a natural disaster and instead tell China to do it. They all said yes. They were also asked if they would support a law that would keep schools from teaching students how to perform homosexual acts, or another that would prevent schools from teaching a "whitewashed" version of Islam while refusing to teach Christianity. The candidates all said yes.
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About 500 people attended the forum, and about 1,000 overall participated in the convention. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum planned to attend the debate Sunday, though with only one candidate, it won't really be a debate.
"If they want to ignore the tea party and not attend here, that's fine. Let them do what they want to do. But they're missing out. They truly are missing out," Dahl said.
AP writer Jennifer Kay in Miami contributed to this report.
Brendan Farrington can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/bsfarrington