Presidential candidate Mitt Romney has announced he won't participate in the state Republican Party's Presidency 5 straw poll, a blow to the prestige of the Florida event.
It means the early frontrunner in the GOP presidential primary won't be courting Florida GOP activists ahead of the party's September state convention for their votes in the straw poll. In the past, the straw poll has been a key event in setting momentum in primary races.
The decision could also call into question the importance of the event in helping choose the GOP nominee to run against President Barack Obama, although party officials said Friday they don't believe it will alter the straw poll's significance.
Romney will participate in a nationally televised debate also planned for the convention, and despite his decision not to campaign in the straw poll, "It would be hard to imagine Mitt Romney, as one of the perceived frontrunners, not being included on the ballot," said party spokesman Trey Stapleton.
In a news release, Romney campaign manager Matt Rhoades said the campaign intends to focus on primaries and caucuses, and won't participate in straw polls planned for Florida, Iowa, Michigan or elsewhere.
So far, no candidates have committed to compete in the straw poll except Jon Huntsman, who is expected to enter the race and will compete if he does. Huntsman plans to make Florida a key part of his campaign, and will have his national headquarters in Orlando.
"Governor Huntsman has made it abundantly clear that if he runs, he will campaign aggressively in Florida," said Susie Wiles, a Florida-based GOP political consultant who's head of Huntsman's PAC.
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty has made no decision, but is also campaigning heavily in Florida and being urged by his Florida backers to participate, said his state chairman, Winter Haven investor Phil Handy.
Other campaigns including those of businessman Herman Cain, U.S. Rep. Ron Paul and former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich either had no comment Friday or didn't return messages seeking comment.
Party organizations and activists love straw polls, because they draw attention from candidates and put the party's grass-roots activists at the center of the presidential race.
But candidates often don't like the expense and time required by straw polls just before the start of the grueling primary season. For that reason, neither party in Florida has held their traditional straw poll since 1995, even though the unique design of the polls make them a more realistic test of the candidates' strength than most party straw polls.
GOP leaders hope to revive the tradition this year.
In 2008, Romney set up a large, early organization in Florida aimed partly at winning an expected GOP straw poll and the state's early primary, but then-Gov. Charlie Crist, not a Romney backer, cancelled the straw poll.
"This time we will focus our energies and resources on winning primaries and caucuses," Rhoades said in his statement.
The Romney campaign also released a statement from Florida supporter John Thrasher, state senator and former state party chairman, saying the decision "makes strategic sense" because campaigning in Florida is expensive and Romney "has already proven his organizational strength and support in Florida."
State Republican Party executive director Andy Palmer called Romney's decision "unfortunate ... given our state's crucial role in choosing the Republican nominee and ultimately choosing the next President.
"With thousands of activists signed up to attend, the event would have been the perfect opportunity to communicate his message directly to Republican voters in the most important swing state in the nation."
Only delegates to the convention will get to vote in the straw poll, and most of the delegates will be chosen by lottery from among party activists who registered online – today is the registration deadline.
Stapleton said that as of Friday afternoon, more than 4,000 Republicans had registered for about 3,400 slots as delegates or alternates.