Fla. Straw Poll Generates Heat, Not So Much Light

It decides nothing, and may be totally meaningless, but like many other political events, the Florida straw poll gets a lot of attention from candidates and the media. This year, the poll is expected to draw 3,500 party activists to take part in Orlando, where NPR's Greg Allen reports from the Conservative Political Action Conference.

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This week's Florida straw poll generates a lot of attention from candidates and the media. The straw poll decides nothing. It may be totally meaningless, but who knows? And this year, the poll drew some 3,500 Republican party activists to Orlando. NPR's Greg Allen is on the scene.

GREG ALLEN: All the major candidates' names will be on the ballot, but some, including former Massachusetts governor, Mitt Romney and Minnesota Congresswoman, Michele Bachmann, say they're not actively participating in the contest. Maybe not, but both took part in this week's run up events in Orlando. A Fox News-sponsored debate Thursday night, and a day at the conservative political action conference CPAC, yesterday.

MICHELE BACHMANN: It is wonderful when you're a Minnesota girl to wake up in Florida. You can't have a bad day. Good morning...

ALLEN: Michele Bachmann won the Iowa straw poll six weeks ago, but since then her poll showings have declined as Texas Governor Rick Perry has gained momentum. That momentum may have hit a road bump in recent debates as Bachmann and the other candidates have taken shots at his record.

In the debate Thursday, and again yesterday, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney brought up an issue that got the attention of many conservatives here in Orlando, Perry's support for a bill extending instate tuition rates to children of illegal immigrants.

MITT ROMNEY: You heard us last night at that debate. One of the things I still can't get over is the idea that a state would decide to give a $100,000 discount to illegals to go to school in their state. It is simply wrong to create that kind of magnet. It cannot be sustained.

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ALLEN: Perry struck back against Romney, saying the health care plan he oversaw in Massachusetts is similar to President Obama's health plan, and it hurt the state's economy. And Perry may have had Romney in mind when he said conservative values matter more than style.

RICK PERRY: It's not who is the slickest candidate or the smoothest debater that we need to elect. We need to elect the candidate with the best record, with the best vision for this country. We need to elect the candidate with the best record, with the best vision for this country.

ALLEN: Many of the Republican activists here this week said they were impressed by the plain talk and common sense of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and businessman Herman Cain. Both are well back in the polls, but remain the kind of conservative candidates who do well in a straw poll of Republican activists.

This is the fifth special presidential event Florida Republicans have sponsored over the years and leaders here say the three-day event they call Presidency 5 has already been a success. It's brought all the candidates to Florida and highlighted the state's importance in the nominating process.

One of the event's architects, Florida Senate Mike Haridopolos, says it's just the beginning. He and other Republican leaders are planning to schedule an early primary, hoping that it would be the fifth contest after Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.

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MIKE HARIDOPOLOS: Most likely the first four states are going to be split. And so when you go to a big state like Florida that is very representative of the rest of the country, the demographics are very similar, that if you can win in Florida, you can probably win the nomination. And if you win in Florida, of course, you'll probably be the next president of the United States.

ALLEN: Florida is not alone in aspiring to an early primary. Arizona has already scheduled its primary next February 28th, in violation of party rules. Michigan is also looking to go early. Florida officials say they hope to announce their early primary date next week. Greg Allen, NPR News, Orlando.

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