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Florida’s GOP delegates could face historic decision

In this March 15 file photo, Donald Trump’s campaign manager Corey Lewandowski listens at left as Trump speaks in Palm Beach, Fla. (Gerald Herbert / Associated Press)
In this March 15 file photo, Donald Trump’s campaign manager Corey Lewandowski listens at left as Trump speaks in Palm Beach, Fla. (Gerald Herbert / Associated Press)
Tribune News Service

ORLANDO, Fla. – Across Florida over the past few weeks, Republican Party members have gathered at libraries, office buildings and restaurants to choose the 99 delegates representing the GOP at the national convention in July.

It’s the same system that has gone on for decades, but there’s one major difference this time around.

“You (usually) just go there to breathe in the air and be part of history,” said Rich Crotty, an Orange County Republican and a state committee man. “But this year? We might actually have to make a decision.”

It’s increasingly possible that at the convention in Cleveland, front-runner Donald Trump might not have the necessary 1,237 delegate votes for victory on the first ballot.

That’s because Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has won 544 pledged delegates himself, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida also control about 300 more. Trump has 846.

For most states, delegates are bound to vote for candidates based on primary and caucus results – but only for the first ballot. If no one gets to 1,237, the delegates vote again until someone does.

Florida has one of the strictest rules, with all delegates bound to the primary winner – this year it was Trump – for the first three ballots. After that, they can vote for anyone.

For the most part, the delegates chosen so far in Florida are party regulars and not necessarily Trump supporters.

So what have been “effectively ceremonial positions,” as Orange County GOP Chair Lew Oliver called them, could end up casting the decisive ballots for the Republican nomination.

“If nothing else, what this election has done is that people are finally realizing that parties are governed by different rules in different states,” said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida. “The selection of delegates matters. It’s huge.”

The state party nominates 15 delegates, plus three slots for party leaders. The other 81 delegates are chosen at caucuses held in each of the 27 congressional districts, led by the county GOP chairs and two elected committee people from each county the district touches.

For the five districts that include Orange County, potential delegates could sign up beforehand and were allowed a one-minute speech.

Crotty said it’s usually not about whom the delegate hopefuls back for president.

“I would look at delegates not in the context of who they support, but what they’ve done for the Republican Party over a period of time,” he said.

Osceola state committee man Mark Cross said state committee members have a tendency to vote for themselves. “It’s an unpaid job, you do a lot of work, and this is the way you get rewarded for your efforts.”

Oliver said he, Crotty, state committeewoman Patty Redlich and county Republican Vice Chair Wendy West were chosen as delegates for Orange.

The full list of delegates will be released by the state party in May.

The state party used to release the names of people who want to be delegates and whom they supported, Cross said, but did not do that this year to avoid appearing biased. So unless they used their one minute to say who they supported, there was no way of knowing beforehand.

Florida’s delegate selection program frustrated Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, who told Fox News on Sunday, “The rules should be that Donald Trump won 99 delegates. . (And) we should have the opportunity to appoint those people.”

But the state party spokesman, Wadi Gatan, responded, “We have no idea what Mr. Lewandowski is talking about.”

But what if the convention goes to a fourth ballot, and Florida delegates are suddenly free?

West, a Trump supporter, said she doesn’t believe it will get to that point, while Oliver and Redlich said it was too early to say how they would vote.

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