Florida's new early primary is paying off for Republican voters, with the leading GOP presidential candidates paying $100,000 each to address 3,000 activists.
"Rudy fired up the crowd. John had them chuckling. Mitt spun family yarns. And Fred left them wanting more.
The leading Republican presidential candidates brought their own style, swagger and substance to an Orlando convention hall Saturday for a state party gala that solidifies Florida's spot on the political map.
The speeches served as a warm-up to Sunday's nationally televised debate (8 p.m., Fox News Channel) and held few surprises, except for Fred Thompson's unexpectedly short speech.
Their appearances underscored the political clout that comes with an early Jan. 29 primary. Candidates Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, Mitt Romney and Thompson ponied up $100,000 for the chance to address the 3,000 attendees, plus thousands of dollars more on snacks and giveaways for their supporters.
They may not have talked about issues dear to Floridians, like hurricane insurance and offshore oil drilling, but they told the crowd what it wanted to hear: Florida matters.
''The winner of the primary here in January will be the Republican nominee,'' said Giuliani, who leads in polls nationwide and in Florida. ``The Republican nominee will win Florida in November, and once again Florida is going to give us the next president of the United States.''
The candidates agreed on almost every issue: cutting runaway spending, supporting the Iraq War, talking tough on Iran.
But they never appeared on the same stage at the same time, never mentioned each other by name and took few swipes at each other, though Thompson noted he was a ''consistent conservative'' and wasn't a ''professional politician.'' And McCain took a jab at Romney for saying during a previous debate that he would check with his lawyers during a security crisis.
If there was a unifying issue, it was Hillary Clinton. The Democratic front-runner was name-dropped and drop-kicked more than anyone else, and the crowd roared every time.
The two-term incumbent? Nobody mentioned him.
Here's what they said and how they said it:
Giuliani was the first to speak, and he made the strongest impression, striding across the stage and pausing at just the right times for dramatic effect and applause.
The former New York City mayor didn't talk about social issues such as abortion and gay rights that separate him from some conservatives, but he did pitch himself as a results-driven executive marketable in traditionally Democratic states.
''We're going to run a 50-state campaign,'' he said. ``We're going to take the campaign to their territory, and we're going to take it back from them.''
What Giuliani lacked in policy detail, he made up for with bravado. ''Our goal in Iraq should be victory,'' he said. Later: ``I will not allow Iran to become a nuclear power. No how. No way.''
Thompson lost an opportunity to roll out a big-name endorsement when a family emergency forced House Speaker Marco Rubio to cancel the announcement. The powerful Miami legislator, who is positioning himself as the party's conservative leader, was sought after by all the campaigns.
Thompson, known more for his acting roles than his Senate tenure, was introduced by a video titled The Hunt for Red November, a spoof of one of his best-known movies, a Tom Clancy Cold War thriller.
His five-minute speech wasn't much longer than the video, in contrast to his rivals, who spoke for at least 15 minutes each. Dozens of people asked: ``Is that it?''
But Thompson is the only candidate planning to stick around after Sunday's nationally televised debate. He's going on a six-city tour over two days, his second extended campaign swing through Florida.
McCain was part war hero, part stand-up comic, drawing on his Vietnam imprisonment but sprinkling his speech with one-liners. Zsa Zsa Gabor was a punch line, and so was the Democratic-controlled Congress: ``When you're getting down that low in the polls, you're getting down to paid staff and blood relatives.''
He claimed repeatedly that the war was succeeding, and noted that he led the call for more troops in Iraq. In a statement that echoed his campaign's never-surrender theme, he declared: ``I will follow bin Laden to the gates of hell. I know how to get him, and I'll get him. We will win this struggle.''
WIDE ARRAY OF POINTS
Romney's presentation stressed his family-man image. His ''sweetie'' introduced him, and he noted that the oldest of his five sons was on stage along with prominent supporters.
He hit some wonky themes, such as harnessing alternative energy from ''blue-green algae'' and fighting radical Muslims who believe in a global ''caliphate'' that seeks to violently spread Islam throughout the world. He repeated his call for 100,000 more troops. ''A strong America has been the best ally peace has ever known,'' he said.
Romney promised that Florida's full slate of delegates would participate in the 2008 Republican nominating convention, despite national party rules that forfeit half of the seats as punishment for the early primary grab. Most of the Democratic candidates are boycotting the state.
But the benefits are clear for Republican voters, said David ''DJ'' Johnson, a veteran political operative not involved with any campaign.
''The campaign in Florida starts today,'' he said. ``This is the time where just a word or a turn of phrase or some little twist can change the outcome. Even though Giuliani's in the lead, anything can happen.''
Schedules permitting, I'll be looking to have another chat with Fred Thompson sometime during the coming week. 5 minutes here, 10 minutes there, still getting a feel for the guy. At this point in time, the Veterans groups seem to be leaning towards Rudy, and of course McCain will always get his share of kudos but he simply cannot win and I for one will never forgive him for dry-humping Teddy Kennedy during the Let's-Give-The-Beaners-A-Free-Pass fiasco. I'm not voting for Julie Annie, Romney has flip-flopped too much for my tastes, and Ron Paul is an alien mothership looking for a place to refuel so any time spent listening to him would be a waste once he decides to blast off back to Uranus. Last time I had a few minutes with Fred the usual good-guys brought it up at their joints but nary a big-timer stooped to mention it; so I won't force them to make believe they knew nothing of it yet again, and if anyone would like to get any feedback on Fred lemme know.