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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."
Rothfus boarded the plane to Florida at 5:45 a.m. Monday for a two-day trip that included his speech, a reception for Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and hearing Boehner address a delegation dining this particular morning on omelets. During the Ohio Republican's talk, Rothfus stood in the back of the room next to a potted plant, arms crossed over his chest.
The Rothfus appearance is especially notable because his Democratic opponent plans to skip out on his party's convention next week in Charlotte, N.C. But Critz's campaign paid attention to Rothfus' speech and sent out a statement attacking him minutes after he left the podium.
"Today's speech is further proof that Keith Rothfus wants to end Medicare as we know it," Critz spokesman Mike Mikus shot back.
The president and, to a lesser degree, his national party are unpopular in southwestern Pennsylvania. The area is filled with Reagan Democrats who overwhelmingly supported Critz's former boss and predecessor, the late Rep. John Murtha (D).
Independent polling of the race is scarce, but Democrats have released several internal polls showing Critz ahead of Rothfus by a few points. Privately, Republicans confess Critz is one of the strongest campaigners in the country.
"He's still the underdog," Madonna continued. "He still has the challenge of defeating an incumbent who understands the voters of that region. You have to give the edge to Critz, as we speak, but it's not insurmountable."
Rothfus has defied the odds before. A survivor of appendix cancer, Rothus ran his first marathon 18 months after doctors opened up his body, removed his vital organs and washed them in a chemotherapy bath in 2007.
"I'm reading the post-op report, and it says, 'The small intestine was returned to its anatomical position,'" Rothfus recalled in an interview. "They had it everywhere. They had to look for tumors."
Raised near Buffalo, N.Y., Rothfus speaks in a combination of upstate New York and southwestern Pennsylvania accent. He rushes through answers with numerical detail, rattling off his age when President Ronald Reagan was elected (18), raffle tickets he purchased while campaigning last week (16), the length of his small intestine (22 feet) and his loss margin last cycle (1.6 percent).
"We didn't have the national support then," Rothfus said. "There's a very big difference there when the [National Republican Congressional Committee] has made this a very high-profile race. I hoped they would make it a high-profile race back in 2010."
When the time came on Tuesday afternoon, Rothfus took the stage 20 minutes ahead of schedule - so much for all his friendly reminders. Underneath him, throngs of delegates decked out in red, white and blue garb chatted and moved around on the floor.
His speech was 237 words. It lasted two minutes and four seconds.
"It was a great surprise when I saw Keith walk in today at breakfast," said state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, a Pennsylvania Republican delegate watching Rothfus from the floor. "He was identified as one who had a chance the last time and I think he has a significant shot this time."