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Handicapping the RPOF chair race: Cox Roush up, Bitner surging

The election for the chair of any party, especially the Republican Party of Florida, is a race like no other. It’s a battle of insider-activists decided solely by insider-activists (i.e., the 257 Republican Executive Committee members). There’s no scientific polling. No real fundraising. No strong indication about who’ll be the winner Jan. 15.

Ask REC voters whom they favor, and the vast majority are mum. Each candidate has the same basic, core platform: “I’m not Jim Greer.”

Ask who’s the frontrunner right now, you get three answers: 1) Am I off the record? 2) Deborah Cox-Roush, the Hillsborough County chair. 3) Maybe Dave Bitner, Jefferson County committeeman.

A few reasons Cox Roush seems favored: She represents one of the biggest Republican counties, she played a role in helping outgoing Chair and Sen. John Thrasher, and she was recently slammed in anonymous mailers --a sign she’s the frontrunner. Cox-Roush seems a bit paranoid. While giving her pitch to one of the caucuses Friday, she was busy inveighing against the ills of leaking to the press and stopped mid sentence to scold Nassau State Committeeman Doug Adkins for setting up a video camera. “Make sure that doesn’t fall into the hands of the St. Pete Times,” she said sternly.

Bitner seems to be closing on her, partly because he has a more jovial approach, despite his hulking defensive end-like physique. Bitner also has legislative experience as both a lawmaker and as a lobbyist. So he knows how to raise money and work the process.

To win, though, Bitner would have to start working as hard for the chairmanship as Joe Gruters, the Sarasota County chair who spent last legislative committee week making the rounds and shaking hands with lawmakers. “He’s the only one who stopped by to talk to me,” said House Republican Majority Leader Carlos Lopez-Cantera of Miami, appointed by House Speaker Dean Cannon last week to the REC. Gruters, an accountant, seems like more of a technocrat that a politicker, though. Spending lots of time talking about financial databases and websites, Gruters’ speaking style isn’t as smooth as Bitner’s or as intense as Cox-Roush’s. He sees salvation through technology. “Right now, we have a major branding problem,” Gruters said. Last summer, he seemed to be a favorite of Rick Scott who praised him as being a “great” choice for party chair.

But then Scott, after becoming gov. elect, turned around and asked Thrasher to stay on as party chair. No dice, said Thrasher. Now, Scott is apparently staying out of the race, though insiders say he’ll want to select the party executive director. Perhaps Gruters’ biggest negative is his youth. He’s 33, old enough to be the son of his four challengers.

Like Gruters, Palm Beach County Chairman Sid Dinerstein is a numbers guy who seems better at finance than public speaking and internal vote-getting. A successful businessman, Dinerstein wants more checks on party spending and moved unsuccessfully Saturday to restrain the future chairman’s spending authority. Had his financial controls been in place during the Greer era, Dinerstein said “We would’ve saved a whole lot of money – and embarrassment.”

Pinellas County Committeeman Tony DiMatteo lays claim to being the original Jim Greer hater. He was one of the most vocal critics of Greer early on and was one of the first top Republicans in the U.S. Senate race to split from Gov . Charlie Crist and back one-time longshot Marco Rubio, now the Republican Party’s biggest star in Florida and one of its most prominent fresh faces nationally. Alas for DiMatteo, Rubio intends to stay neutral. And while DiMatteo is a solid fundraiser and tough scrapper, he’s probably a little too tough and too unpolished to be embraced by the Republican establishment (hence Cox-Roush and Bitner’s likely leads)