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Florida GOP Seeks Leadership as Scott Settles In

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Florida Gov. Rick Scott must fill a void for a state party still rebuilding its image, and some Republicans are worried he’s the wrong man for a big job.

The Florida Republican Party is struggling to find the crucial political leadership that could determine whether the GOP is successful against President Barack Obama and Sen. Bill Nelson.

While the party appears operationally sound as it prepares for the 2012 elections, Gov. Rick Scott has yet to settle into a leadership role and Republicans are still recovering from some embarrassing 2010 setbacks. Gov. Charlie Crist bolted the GOP and his hand-picked chairman, Jim Greer, resigned amid charges of financial and political mismanagement.

The void is Scott’s to fill. But his transition to party leader has been rocky, as the outsider Republican remains without a base and largely unknown to GOP activists following a 2010 campaign that eschewed traditional grass-roots campaigning for paid media.

Florida Republicans say that could change. Scott has just emerged from a contentious legislative session, and the former multimillionaire hospital executive finally has time to focus on party building and the governor’s natural role as political leader. Whether he does so could influence GOP fortunes in this coveted swing state, where money and a highly organized ground game are required to retake Florida from Obama and oust Nelson.

“It’s an evolving process that comes from the fact that Rick Scott came out of nowhere,” said David Johnson, a well-connected Republican strategist based in Florida. “Time will tell.”

Republicans have a lot riding on Florida and how well the state party organizes for 2012 in advance of the GOP nominee emerging, most likely next spring, particularly with the Republican National Committee still digging out of a financial hole from last cycle. Only once in the past 10 presidential elections has the candidate who won Florida lost the election. (In 1992, Bill Clinton lost Florida to President George H.W. Bush but won the presidency.)

Obama is sure to invest significant resources to retain Florida’s 29 electoral votes, with some predicting the president’s state campaign will spend $100 million. Nelson’s seat is a top Republican target as the GOP eyes a Senate takeover. Florida Republicans view txheir upcoming September presidential straw poll and grass-roots organizing event as a way to solidify the state as a permanent GOP primary battleground, and the Republican National Convention will be held in Tampa.

Some Republicans in the Sunshine State are skeptical of Scott’s ability, even willingness, to embrace the position of political leader. Former two-term Gov. Jeb Bush, who left office in 2007, is still popular and considered by some as the go-to Florida Republican on policy and political matters. Yet others say Scott is already a marked improvement from Crist’s tenure — even from when the failed 2010 Independent Senate candidate was still a Republican.

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