HAINES CITY – If it sometimes feels like the 2012 presidential campaign started months ago, the truth is that a year and a half before election day is never too early to be lobbying for votes.
That’s exactly what Tracy N. Bryant is hoping for.
“We’re anticipating there will be issues that come up again, some issues that need to be talked about,” Bryant said. “No huge trumpets yet, of course, but we’re very hopeful.”
Bryant is the president of Florida Communications & Development Group Inc. of Lakeland, and a member of the Haines City/Northeast Polk County Chamber of Commerce. She’s the coordinator of the Chamber’s annual Pig Roast & Political Rally, a special held every August that provides a very old-fashioned form of retail politics: invite the candidates to show up, get on stage, and wow the crowd with a spellbinding political speech. In the era of campaigns sold on Facebook, Twitter and other online sources, this is a throwback to the pre-television, pre-Internet age of politics, grassroots politicking at its best.
“This is our primary fund-raiser of the year,” said Bryant of the dinner that will be held on Friday, Aug. 5 at the Lake Eva Banquet Hall in downtown Haines City. It will include a barbeque dinner, open bar, live and silent auctions, and a VIP reception room where guests can meet with the candidates one on one. The VIP reception starts at 5:30 p.m., while the dinner begins at 6.
Former state Rep. Marty Bowen, a Winter Haven Republican, will serve as the master of ceremonies.
Bryant noted that in August 2010, the Pig Roast attracted a candidate who was making his first run for political office, and initially looked like a longshot: Rick Scott, who ended up becoming Florida’s governor a few months later. In August 2009, the former speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, Marco Rubio, a Miami Republican, attended to help launch his 2010 bid for the U.S. Senate. He also won, even though his main competitor at that time, Gov. Charlie Crist, had a solid lead in the polls.
“That’s kind of the message we want to give out,” Bryant said. “If you want to win, come to the Pig Roast.”
The challenge has been getting candidates to turn out in non-election years like this one. But Bryant isn’t worried this year. She noted that the 2012 presidential campaign has pretty much started already. A host of prominent candidates have already announced they’re running for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, including Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain and Rick Santorum. Several others are considering bids, and President Obama has made it clear he plans to seek a second term.
Bryant said the early, heightened interest in the presidential race should help bring out die-hard political junkees who crave an event where politics is celebrated like a spectator sport. It helps, she added, that Florida will be a key state in next year’s presidential election.
“Florida is a very important state,” she said.
State Rep. Mike Horner, R-St. Cloud, agreed, noting that Florida tends to side with the winning candidate. Only twice since World War II – in 1960 and 1992 – has Florida backed the losing candidate. In 1960, Florida voted for Richard Nixon, who lost the election to John Kennedy, and in 1992, President George H.W. Bush lost his re-election bid to Bill Clinton, though Bush carried Florida.
“There’s no question Florida is going to be crucial in the general election,” Horner said. “Florida is the swing state that elected the last two presidents. The state of Florida will be pivotal.”
The state’s GOP primary could also be crucial. It definitely was in 2008. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani had initially led in the polls and hoped to carry Florida, but he lost the state to Arizona Sen. John McCain, who came close to locking up his party’s nomination after carrying the Sunshine State. Most of McCain’s leading opponents, including Giuliani and Romney, dropped out after losing in Florida. Only former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee stayed in the race to continuen challenging McCain.
“In the primary, it depends on how close the primary is early on,” Horner said. “It’s way too early to tell what the primary field will be like by then.”
But it definitely helps, Bryant said, that the Pig Roast is held in August and by Labor Day Weekend, the presidential candidates will start campaigning more heavily in the states that hold primaries and caucus votes starting in January.
“The primaries begin just a few months after the Pig Roast,” she said. “So it’s an important time to hold this.”
It also helps, she said, that the presidential race is putting a spotlight on politics and whetting the public’s appetite for a good, competitive race.
“Things change on a dime so quickly,” Bryant said. “Talk about the 24-hour news cycle.”
There’s also a lot of interest being generated this year by redistricting, she said. In 2012, state legislatures will begin redrawing congressional and state legislative district lines to reflect population shifts over the past decade. That means some of the incumbents running for re-election in 2012 don’t know yet what their districts will look like – and may be especially eager to meet and greet as many regional voters as possible, just to be safe.
“We sent out the Save the Date cards to all the candidates and, of course, invited all the folks who have filed to run,” Bryant said. “With reapportionment, we hope that will help us, even though the candidates don’t know where they’re running yet. It’s the hot topic these days, and we’re hopeful we’ll be able to attract a good turnout.”
Jane Patton, president of the Haines City Chamber, said she also hopes a solid turnout at the Pig Roast encourages local residents to check out what Haines City has to offer, “so we can promote buying local,” she said. “I think there’s a lot of people who don’t know what’s in their local community. They’re used to running up to Orlando for stuff, or Lakeland for stuff. There are folks looking to make a living right here in Haines City.”
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