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GOP Hopefuls Get Warmed Up for Florida Showdown

GOP presidential hopeful Rick Perry speaks to reporters in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. on Wednesday. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

ORLANDO, FLA. | Seven of the nine Republican presidential contenders who will take to the debate stage in Orlando Thursday night took part in an afternoon kick-off event for a meeting known as Presidency 5, giving the candidates — and the party faithful — a chance to warm up for the night’s main event.

The rally was sponsored by the Faith and Freedom Coalition — a grassroots organization that focuses on social issues — and each of the candidates who spoke addressed those concerns to varying degrees.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who polls show as the frontrunner nationally, as well as in the Sunshine State, addressed the crowd last.

He told the audience that he “wasn’t born with four aces” in his hand, but he said his family was “rich in values,” a riff on former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s attack in the most recent debate, when he charged that the relative success of the Texas economy in recent years had more to do with the favorable business climate in the Lone Star State, and less to do with Perry’s leadership.

Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, who has seen her standing in the polls drop sharply in recent weeks, told the crowd that they “don’t have to settle” when it comes to choosing a nominee in 2012. She contended that President Obama’s approval ratings would continue to drop, so Republicans shouldn’t worry about nominating a “true social conservative” who might normally be a tough sell with independent voters.

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum urged the attendees not to consider what boxes the candidates have checked or what pledges they have signed, but to instead look at what “bullets and arrows” they have taken for social causes. Santorum pointed to his 12 years in the Senate as proof that he has a record of standing up for faith, family and life.

Romney, Perry’s chief rival, started with the question: “Is there anybody in this room who thinks President Obama has a single clue of how to turn this economy around?” The former Massachusetts governor kept on the economic message for most of his remarks, occasionally weaving in some references to his social conservative views.

Texas Rep. Ron Paul, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and businessman Herman Cain also addressed the crowd, which organizers put at 3,000.

This week’s three-day Presidency 5 event, hosted by the Republican Party of Florida, includes Thursday’s debate (co-sponsored by Fox News and Google), and a Saturday straw poll. Sandwiched in between is the first-ever regional Conservative Political Action Conference, which the GOP hopefuls are scheduled to address Friday.

The gathering of 3,500 Republican activists will shine the political spotlight brightly on Florida, a critical primary and general election state. Florida is again threatening to crash the nominating calendar schedule by moving its primary date earlier than is sanctioned by the Republican Party, a move that could put added weight to the primary result next year.

Find more coverage on our politics page. We’ll have full analysis of Thursday’s GOP debate in Friday’s Morning Line.

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