UPDATE: Nov. 6, 6:18 p.m. -- Republican presidential candidate and former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) on Sunday defied the lowered expectations of the 2011 Florida Tea Party Convention's attendees when he made an appearance at the three-day gathering of Sunshine State conservatives.
Event organizers had invited a number of prominent Florida GOP lawmakers and all the major Republican presidential candidates, but by as late as Saturday, all had either declined their invitation or refused to publicly commit to attending. The gathering's organizers were forced to scrap the scheduled presidential debate and replaced it with a town hall-style event.
In addition to Santorum's appearance, former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich all called in and were patched into the venue's speakers. Portraits of the candidates who called in were splashed on a large screen while they answered questions.
During his question-and-answer session, Santorum made light of his opponents' absence.
"Since I'm the only one that's going to be here, I'll fill up the glass of water so no one else has to take it," he said in reference to a glass and pitcher laid out only for him. The line elicited laughter and applause from the audience. "You're welcome," a happy Santorum said in response.
In a swipe at candidates Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman, who neither telephoned in nor appeared in person, cardboard cutouts of the two men were placed on stage and asked questions by the town hall's moderator.
Ron Paul and Rick Perry did not address the convention in person, over the phone, or in cardboard form.
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The decision by a number of prominent Republicans to skip a major statewide tea party convention has provoked frustration among its organizers and raised questions about the controversial positions advanced by some of the event's participants.
Tea party allies Gov. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.), Attorney General Pam Bondi (R-Fla.) and the leading Republican candidates for president have all declined invitations to the 2011 Florida Tea Party Convention. Senate candidates Adam Hasner and George LeMieux and Rep. Connie Mack (R-Fla.) are not attending either.
Planners say it is the first time members of Florida's sizable tea party movement have convened at a conference of their own and believe the event will help galvanize the state's loosely affiliated chapters. Around 1,000 activists are expected to make their way to this balmy seaside resort town for the function, which features keynote addresses and seminars given by right-wing academics, political strategists, businesspeople, theologians and other conservatives.
The absence of marquee GOP officeholders or seekers has irked many high-ranking local tea party officials. Pamela Dahl, the convention's chair and president of Florida's Tri-County Tea Party, said she had hoped a live presidential forum would be one of the highlights of the three-day gathering.
"I'm not happy that they decided that they didn't want to come and they thought evidently that we were not important," she said. "But the way I look at it is maybe it isn't important to them. Either that or maybe they're scared of us."
Richard "Sheriff" Mack, a political advocate and former Graham County, Arizona sheriff who delivered a seminar on policing and firearm regulations at the convention, echoed Dahl.
"Michele Bachmann and Marco Rubio used to be tea party favorites," Mack said. "The tea parties got them elected and now they're not here at the Florida state tea party rally. This is the most important meeting in Florida and Michele Bachmann -- well she doesn't live here -- but Marco Rubio does and he should be here."
While Rubio did not attend the event in person, he recorded a video that that was screened for attendees at a Friday night banquet. "You were in the front lines in 2010 and you'll be in the front lines again in 2012," he said during his remarks. "So thank you for your continued activism."
None of the other absent candidates or lawmakers have thus far recorded a message for the convention, which ends Sunday afternoon.
The gathering has attracted negative attention of its own, and at least one outside organization has accused it of promoting religious intolerance. The Orlando Sentinel reported Thursday that the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Muslim civil liberties organization, sent letters to leading Florida Republicans, including Scott and Rubio, asking them them to boycott the convention.
In their letters, CAIR officials specifically cited convention speaker Pamela Geller as a main source of their concern. A well-known critic of Islam and of Muslims, Geller is a fixture in the far-right media and on the lecture circuit. She is the co-founder of the group Stop Islamization of America and writes the popular blog Atlas Shrugs, which regularly features material hostile to Muslims. Earlier this year, the Southern Poverty Law Center listed Stop Islamization of America as a hate group.
In a press release, the Florida chapter of CAIR thanked Rubio and Scott "for declining to speak at next week's Florida tea party convention, which features a presentation by anti-Islam extremist Pamela Geller."
Geller is not the only convention speaker who is vocally critical of Islam. Another presenter, Dr. Bill Warner, is the founder and director of the Center for the Study of Political Islam. The Florida Tea Party convention's website lists him as an active religious scholar who "writes articles and produces news Bulletins that record the suffering of the victims caused by Political Islam".
During a seminar Friday, Warner levied a number of highly sensational accusations against Islam and even questioned its standing as a theology. "What is not in the Quran is any way to practice the religion of Islam," he told a small group in room 101-C of the Ocean Convention Center.
He referred to Muslims featured in Islamic religious texts as perpetrators of genocide and claimed that Islam violates Article Six of the Constitution. "[I]t is the the apologists who maintain that Islam is a religion and therefore it cannot be criticized," he said. "I maintain it is a political system, which over a period of 1400 years had murdered 270 million people. I ain't talking religion here. I'm talking political conquest."
Dahl denied that there was any connection between the absence of high-profile politicians at the event and CAIR's boycott threat.
"That's very false," Dahl said. "[CAIR has] been threatening people like that all the time but, no, [Rubio] does not believe in that group ... and neither does the governor ... We're on the phone with these people nearly every single day. They want to know how many people are coming and who's covering this and that's the game ... As far as Gov. Scott, we were penciled in since January but other things came up that he had to bow out basically last week."
The event's official website still boasts that "Presidential candidates will get their chance to describe their plan while answering questions in a one-on-one moderator format that's different from the usual 'attack the other guy' debate strategy."
Now that the prospective Republican presidential nominees have chosen to bypass the event, organizers have asked the candidates to submit prerecorded video responses to questions supplied by convention participants. It is unclear whether such a question-and-answer session, tentatively scheduled for Sunday, will actually occur.
Florida has long been a key swing state, but it has typically played a minimal role in choosing the Republican nominee for president due to its late primary date. A recent decision by the Florida GOP to sacrifice some of its delegates and move its primary ahead to January 31st has dramatically increased the state's importance in the primary process.
On Friday, a number of the Republican presidential candidates convened in Des Moines, Iowa for the Ronald Reagan dinner, a prominent fundraiser attended by many Hawkeye State GOP officials. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), Rep. Ron Paul (Texas), former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) and Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) each delivered an address to the roughly 1,000 attendees. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain did not attend.
It is unclear what, if any, effect politicians' decisions to rebuff their invitations to the convention might have on the Sunshine State's primary and general elections, but attendees insist there will be lasting consequences.
"They're making a big mistake," said Tina Altic, a member of the Highlands County tea party. "We have power. They saw what we did in the last election and they need to support us."
"Remember 2010? I guess that's all I need to say," Dahl said. "Remember 2010, what the tea parties did and there's more tea parties now than there's ever been."
KrisAnne Hall, one of the event's keynote speakers, tried to put a positive spin on the situation. "I think it's going to work out by design ... that we are not distracted by all the sort of hoopla and we can get down to work and become trained on what we need to know to actually restore this nation," she said.
"Most of the time I'd prefer to have cutouts because they don't lie to me," she added, a reference to the cardboard cutouts of Republican politicans standing guard on the convention floor.