A tight, tough five-way battle for the chairmanship of the Republican Party of Florida has no clear front-runner, but lots of political intrigue.
Vice Chairwoman Deborah Cox-Roush appeared to have the inside track in the election, which will be conducted Saturday morning at the RPOF meeting in Orlando.
But Cox-Roush was knocked sideways by revelations of her 2004 drunken-driving arrest. The incident raised haunting memories of disgraced RPOF boss Jim Greer's own DUI.
Cox-Roush has further been dogged by Greer-esque accusations that she used her RPOF position and connections to benefit her catering business at party meetings.
Cox-Roush's problems -- real and perceived -- have opened the door for her rivals.
Sarasota County Republican Chairman Joe Gruters landed several key endorsements in the past two weeks. Among them: Senate Majority Whip Anitere Flores, Senate President Pro-Tem Mike Bennett, former state Rep. Kurt Kelly and Pat Neal, former chairman of the Christian Coalition of Florida.
Gruters also received encouraging words from Gov.-to-be Rick Scott. In an appearance in Sarasota in the closing days of the campaign, Scott said, "We all know that the next chairman of the Republican Party ought to be Joe, because he has done such a wonderful job in Sarasota."
Meantime, Jefferson County state committeeman Dave Bitner picked up the endorsement of former RPOF Chairman Tom Slade, who called Bitner "a rock-solid conservative leader."
But Bitner has had issues of his own with revelations of a domestic-violence charge. The complaint against the former legislator was filed in 1999 by his wife, Wendy, who later withdrew it.
Two other contenders -- Tony DiMatteo of Pinellas County and Sid Dinerstein of Palm Beach County -- round out the RPOF field.
DiMatteo, as chairman of the RPOF's grievance committee, has crossed swords with some conservative Republicans, who denounced him as a Greer "groupie."
Dinerstein, despite prodigious fund-raising skills, also has been marginalized as outside the mainstream of RPOF delegates, many who hail from rural counties.
As the only woman in the race, Cox-Roush remains a formidable candidate. Conventional wisdom puts her in a runoff against Gruters, Bitner or DiMatteo.
Gruters, who boasts the longest list of endorsers, has waged the most proactive campaign for the RPOF post.
Consultant Brian Graham said that as of last week, Gruters had personally met with 157 of 257 RPOF delegates, traveling through every county in the state over the past five months.
Gruters' record of electoral success and get-out-the-vote efforts in Sarasota County earned him rave reviews from across the state.
We need Joe Gruters bold, innovative, conservative leadership at the RPOF, said Sen. Flores, R-Miami. Joes just the leader our party needs to build a sustaining majority.
As the only candidate under age 55, Gruters appears less beholden to the traditional powers-that-be. Sen. Steve Wise, R-Jacksonville, hailed Gruters' "authentic conservatism" and "devotion to the grass-roots."
But each of the RPOF hopefuls has flaws, observers say. In Gruters' case, JavierManjarres suggests it may be an overly deferential relationship with U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan.
Manjarres, who runs the political website Shark Tank, posted a letter from Gruters, who stated:
"As for the concern that I am running for the benefit of Congressman Vern Buchanan's potential U.S. Senate race, I dont think I have to remind people what happens when a party leader focuses on the benefits of one politician instead of focusing on what is best for all candidates and the party.
"If Congressman Buchanan decided to run for the U.S. Senate, I would resign my position as chair, but will say that he is committed to fulfilling his role as Finance Chair for the National Republican Congressional Committee by raising over $50 million over the next two years."
Graham, when asked about Gruters' resignation pledge, said the subject is moot.
"Bottom line: Vern Buchanan is not going to run for U.S. Senate," Graham told Sunshine State News.
Bitner says he, too, has been traversing the state.
"I'm working every day and hustling to get to every county. This is a real grass-roots effort," he said.
Bitner, who says he never requested an earmark in eight years as a state legislator from Charlotte and Sarasota counties, describes the RPOF chairmanship is a full-time job, and pledged to treat it as such.
DiMatteo calls the spirited battle for chairman "a family fight."
"There are a bunch of people with preconceived thoughts. There are blocs of votes you won't change. You never know until the votes are cast," he said.
DiMatteo believes he can "bring people together."
"I have no litmus test on any issue. We need to be tolerant of diversity," he said. As for Greer, he says he supported him "until he put Charlie Crist ahead of the party."
Along with Dinerstein, DiMatteo believes that the attacks on RPOF candidates are self-inflicted.
"There have been no smears by us. It's chaos created by outsiders," he said.
Dinerstein, another veteran of the party apparatus, touts his business and management experience as well as his seniority, including six years on the executive committee.
Vowing to make the RPOF "less Tallahassee-centric," Dinerstein says, "If we take care of the 67 counties, the state will take care of itself."
And speaking of fund-raising, he says intriguingly, "I have places to get money no one is talking about."
Manjarres, who acknowledges having close geographic and political ties with Dinerstein, said Bitner is "quietly gaining momentum."
Slade, in his endorsement of Bitner, said, "Dave has the legislative experience to support the pro-jobs, pro-growth policies of Governor Scott, Senate President [Mike] Haridopolos and Speaker [Dean] Cannon, while also working closely with the grass-roots to ensure that they have the resources they need in counties across the state."
Haridopolos, Cannon and Scott have made no public endorsements -- though each appoints 10 delegates to the RPOF voting body. The Scott administration reportedly began actively vetting the candidates in the wake of the Cox-Roush revelations.
Outgoing Chairman John Thrasher has remained tight-lipped, as well.
One of the few state committeemen to go on the record is Liliana Ros of Miami-Dade County.
Ros called Cox-Roush "a tough, courageous, and conservative Republican leader."
"The recent mean-spirited attacks against her have only cemented my support," Ros said.
Ultimately, Saturday's vote in Orlando could hinge on how the five contenders fare at a candidate forum the night before. at Epcot's Swan and Dolphin resort.
Graham believes that Gruters will connect by promoting change.
"The whole system discourages younger people and working couples from participating," Graham said of RPOF's Friday meetings and high-priced resort venues.
"We need to change the meetings, provide meaningful training and do it all on Saturday," Graham said.
Peter Schorsch, who edits Saint Petersblog from St. Petersburg, said, "Everyone is looking for the anti-DCR [Deborah Cox-Roush] candidate."
"Gruters needs to sound experienced. DiMatteo needs to sound statesmanlike," said Schorsch, who disclosed that he and DiMatteo have had "informal" political dealings.
Dinerstein, meanwhile, pledged to reveal some of his exclusive fund-raising strategies at the Friday evening forum.
In the end, Schorsch believes "the deciders will be the legislative appointees. They're very much up for grabs."
Cox-Roush did not respond to Sunshine State News' request for an interview.
Contact Kenric Ward at firstname.lastname@example.org or (772) 801-5341.