TAMPA, Fla. - There was only one number on Keith Rothfus' mind Tuesday morning as he greeted his fellow Pennsylvania Republicans at an airport hotel breakfast: 3:53.
That's the time Rothfus was scheduled to take the stage at the Republican National Convention for an entire two minutes.
"3:53 - I'm on today," Rothfus reminded another delegate.
Rothfus, an attorney, has come a long way since 2010, when GOP strategists overlooked his challenge to a Democratic Member in suburban Pittsburgh. He lost by 3,869 votes.
Two years later, Rothfus receives the royal candidate treatment. National Republicans have reserved millions in TV airtime to run ads in the district this fall. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) visited the 12th district to fundraise for him. And this week, he was one in a select group of House candidates squeezed into the condensed speaking schedule at the three-day convention.
"I think they learned their lesson," said Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, after breakfast. "I think they understand that he's certainly a strong, legitimate contender for the combined seats. It really changes the dynamic."
Rothfus had some help, too. Last year, Republicans controlled the redraw of the Congressional map in Pennsylvania, which lost a seat following reapportionment. They combined the districts of Democratic Reps. Jason Altmire and Mark Critz but made it a more Republican seat in the process. Critz defeated Altmire in the April primary, paving the way for one of the most competitive races in the country this November.
Republicans view the redrawn seat as their white whale - an elusive district they couldn't flip in the 2010 GOP wave or in a bitterly expensive special election earlier that year. Democrats, meanwhile, see the seat as a must-hold to make net gains in November.
This cycle, the 12th district is the top race in a state that has been deprived of competitive races because of the GOP-led redistricting.
"I think it's the only district really in play," said G. Terry Madonna, a political science professor and pollster at Franklin & Marshall College.
But the district is significant for national reasons, too: It's the epicenter of the budget battle over revamping entitlement programs, with one of the largest percentages of Medicare enrollments in the country.
Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan made one of his first stops on the campaign trail as the GOP vice presidential candidate in nearby Carnegie, Pa., last week. Rothfus attended the rally to watch Ryan swing a Terrible Towel - the hometown Pittsburgh Steelers football team's fan item of choice - over his head like a helicopter.
Around the same time, Rothfus got the call that he would get a speaking role in Tampa this week.
"I said, 'Are you kidding?' I was really surprised," he said. "It's a real privilege to be asked. So to be able to bring the message I've been talking about to the national stage, affects not just the people in my district, but across the country."
Following the speeches from elected officials, the crowd stands at long tables as they dig into BBQ, brunswick stew, cadillac rice at the Law Enforcement Cookout at Wayne Dasher's pond house in Glennville, Ga., on Thursday, April 17, 2014.