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Florida GOP elite flock to meet Rick Perry

Sure, the February primary is far away, but the scene yesterday morning in the Intercontinental hotel in downtown Tampa sure suggests Rick Perry could increase his lead and buzz in the Republican race for president in Florida. So many legislators from the area showed up that it was almost a caucus meeting.

Following a well-attended breakfast fundraiser, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam paid Perry a visit. Then came future House Speakers Will Weatherford and Richard Corcoran, representatives Rich Glorioso, Seth McKeel, Jim Frishe and Ron Schenck. House Speaker Dean Cannon already endorsed, as has future Senate President Don Gaetz and his son, Rep. Matt Gaetz and others. Only one Senator was spied Tuesday morning, Jack Latvala, perhaps the canniest of legislators when it comes to navigating Tampa-area and Florida politics. (It looked like Debbie Coxe Roush was there, too). So was Pasco's GOP heavyweight and gun-show guru, Bill Bunting. 

Not all the folks (Putnam, Weatherford, Corcoran, etc.) were there to endorse. But chances are good that more of them will than won't. 

"He was impressive. He has a good record. He makes a a good case," said Weatherford, who endorsed now-withdrawn candidate Tim Pawlenty along with Corcoran. Both passed up Romney and Corcoran had little good to say about the Massachusetts governor when he downplayed his role in the Presidency 5 straw poll hosted by the Republican Party of Florida.

Perry, by contrast, says he's all in.

"Jobs is the biggest issue, and Perry has a good record," Corcoran said. "He was very charismatic. But people who reach that level are always super charismatic." 

Legislative endorsements might not mean much, but Perry is close to hitting a critical mass in the Florida Legislature. And Republicans there, still stinging from the 2008 loss of Florida to Barack Obama, want a winner. Also, behind the scenes, it's an open secret that Gov. Rick Scott wants his pal Perry to win, hence some of the top Republican Party of Florida insiders heading to team Perry. So expect at least a few fundraisers (sorry, Tallahassee lobby corps, these need to be personal donations).

On a related note, the sheer number of Republican higher-ups should dispel the myth that the Perry-Romney matchup is a grassroots vs. establishment contest. It's more like Southern Republican vs. Yankee country clubbers. It's tough to argue Perry is the outsider in Florida when he has some of the top legislators behind him as well as the shadow help of the governor's office/party power structure. Still, with social conservatives like John Stemberger lining up behind Perry as well, it's easy to see where the grassroots are growing toward.