By BRANDON LARRABEE
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
Florida Republicans gathering in Cleveland for the national party’s convention heard a dire message to kick off the week: The presidential candidate they will officially nominate during the four-day meeting would lose the election right now.
“The first thing is, if the election were held today, Hillary Clinton wins,” said Republican pollster Frank Luntz, who spoke Monday morning to a Florida GOP delegates’ breakfast near Cleveland.
Republican delegates from across the country will formally vote later this week to nominate real-estate mogul Donald Trump, whose blunt style has worried some members of his party and prompted some high-profile GOP figures to stay away. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and both of the surviving Republican presidents will skip Cleveland.
At the breakfast Monday, Luntz said Florida and its 29 electoral votes would be pivotal in the 2016 contest.
While President Barack Obama would not have lost re-election in 2012 if Mitt Romney had carried Florida, it is extremely difficult for a Republican to gather the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency without the state.
“Your state is going to determine who wins and who loses this campaign,” said Luntz, who made his first stop of the convention at the Florida breakfast. “You in this room are going to determine and you have the power to make a difference in the future of the country.”
The areas where Luntz said Republicans should focus this year would be familiar to anyone who has followed the party’s attempt to rebuild itself in the Obama era. The GOP must do better with younger voters and Latinos, Luntz said.
Republican worries about Trump, who has promised to build a wall on the nation’s border with Mexico to block illegal immigration, have often centered on whether he can make headway among Latinos. But Blaise Ingoglia, a Republican lawmaker from Spring Hill who doubles as state party chairman, said the Florida GOP is working to register Latino and young voters for the election and to project its message better into Hispanic communities.
He also said the state GOP is working to bolster its technology and social media efforts, where Ingoglia has conceded the Democrats have held an edge in past elections.
“But they’re not going to have those advantages now,” Ingoglia said.
And Republican leaders are optimistic that Trump can help down-ballot candidates in parts of the state, at least.
“If you look at the I-4 corridor, I think Donald Trump right now is a boost,” said incoming House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes. “If you look at Miami-Dade, it’s more difficult. So (U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio) coming back on the ticket was huge for Florida.”
But there are also signs that the rift in the Republican Party opened up by the heated primary leading to Trump’s nomination has not completely healed. In addition to Bush being absent, Rubio has chosen to campaign in Florida this week and address the convention by video.
Still, Ingoglia said he believed the “Never Trump” movement launched by some Republicans has fizzled out, and that he supported Rubio’s decision to spend the week on the stump. He also said delegates wouldn’t be disappointed by the absence of two of Florida’s highest-profile Republicans.
“I think that they’re just concentrating on the convention, they’re concentrating on the message and they’re concentrating on making sure that the party remains unified and continues to solidify and continues to grow and the message gets out for the election,” Ingoglia said.