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Bachmann faces high hurdle in Sunshine State of Florida

TAMPA, FLA. — Florida fundraiser Bill Diamond wanted to work for presidential candidate Michele Bachmann, but instead he is raising money for the rival team of Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

Diamond, a Palm Beach councilman who raised money for Rudy Giuliani in 2008, had reached out to Bachmann’s campaign to help in Florida, but got no response. When Perry entered the race, Diamond gave up on Bachmann. He now heads Perry’s fundraising efforts in lucrative Palm Beach County.

“I never heard anything,” Diamond said in an interview. “That’s not very encouraging.”

As Bachmann struggles nationally to put her campaign back on track, evidence is emerging that Perry may already have out-organized her here.

Last month, Bachmann went on a six-city tour in Florida, drawing big crowds. But it’s Perry and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, not Bachmann, who are quickly ramping up Florida ground operations, according to local Republican officials and activists. Bachmann’s camp appears to have done little outreach in the state since swinging through, GOP locals say.

This week Florida takes center stage in the campaign: On Thursday the Florida Republican Party will host a nationally televised presidential debate in Orlando. On Friday Bachmann, along with the other candidates, will address the influential Conservative Political Action Committee’s conference there. Saturday brings the Florida straw poll of 3,500 GOP activists and party leaders.

Keith Nahigian, Bachmann’s new campaign manager, said Bachmann is competing in Florida. “She’s very connected to this state in terms of its message,” Nahigian said in an interview. “She does well here.”

“As far as I can tell at this moment, there’s only really two camps operating in Florida: the Mitt Romney [camp] and the Rick Perry [camp],” said former Florida Gov. Bob Martinez, who has not endorsed in the race. Martinez told the website Politico, “Other candidates, I’m not saying they haven’t been in, but they don’t seem to have traction at this point.”

Campaign spokeswoman Alice Stewart offered a different perspective: “Michele has had several events in Florida and was met tremendous enthusiasm,” Stewart said. “We have a full time fundraiser on the ground in Florida and are in the process of putting together a ground operation there.”

Iowa and New Hampshire hold the first contests of the 2012 Republican primary season, but the road to the nomination may run through this sprawling, diverse battleground state. The state wants to be the first large state to hold a primary next year and will play host to the 2012 Republican national convention.

Joe Gruters, Republican chair of Sarasota County, said of Bachmann: “I think that she could be successful here, but she has not put a campaign together. She has not been organizing like the Romney and Perry campaigns.”

Sid Dinerstein, GOP chair in Palm Beach County, said he knows locals working for all the major campaigns — except for Bachmann.

Battle for the Tea Party

Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida, said Bachmann could do well in Florida because of her role as a Tea Party leader. At an August campaign event in Sarasota, Bachmann drew a crowd of more than 1,000. “She’s energized by Florida because the Tea Party is very strong here,” said MacManus, who saw Bachmann speak at the event.

Bachmann’s strength in Florida can be found at places like the Idlewild Baptist Church in Lutz, a northern suburb of Tampa. The sprawling mega-church hosted Bachmann at a Sunday service last month. She did not speak, but drew plenty of interest afterward meeting parishioners.

Idlewild member Loreita Townsend said Bachmann “speaks out for what we believe in as far as family and faith.” She hasn’t settled on a candidate, however, because she also likes Perry.

Just as he has nationwide, Perry has eaten up Bachmann’s support from evangelical and Tea Party voters in Florida as the alternative to Romney, a Mormon whose establishment ties are off-putting to some in the Tea Party.

John Stemberger, president of the evangelical Florida Family Policy Council, hosted a Bachmann event in August event, but now is “leaning heavily” toward endorsing Perry. “I think very very highly of her,” Stemberger said. “The problem is that as soon as Rick Perry walks in the room, she’s no longer viable.”

Many Florida Tea Party groups are waiting to endorse, weighing their options between Perry and Bachmann. “People are so concerned about defeating Obama they want to hold off a little bit and see how the Perry-Bachmann fight goes,” said Tampa Tea Party co-founder Tom Gaitens.

A mix of constituencies

Florida’s Republican Party spans evangelicals, fiscal conservatives, moderates and a large Hispanic population — the biggest, most complex campaign target Bachmann has attempted to date.

“We tend to vote in Florida for people we think can be the nominee, people we think can win in a general election,” said Will Weatherford, a GOP state representative in line to become Florida House Speaker.

A visit to Florida earlier this month found Bachmann playing to local issues, including the obligatory visit to Miami’s Bay of Pigs Museum, but running afoul of some Repubilcans when she suggested drilling in the Everglades.

Florida Rep. Allen West, a Tea Party-backed freshman, declared he would “straighten her out,” and sent Bachmann a letter that said the Everglades was “absolutely off limits.”

Perry had not visited Florida before a recent debate in Tampa, but when he did, he had a team ready to receive him. Fellow Texas A&M alum Wes Maddox moved to Florida from Texas for Perry in an unofficial role. The campaign has hired a state director and field operatives to Perry compete with Romney’s built-in organization from his 2008 run.

At a meet-and-greet with Perry’s wife Anita in a local restaurant, undecided Tampa GOP activist Judy Gordon went to size up the surrogate.

“I’m more here to learn what everybody has to say,” she said. Gordon won’t have long to decide. She’s a delegate at this weekend’s straw poll.

(Jeremy Herb writes for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune)