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Florida delegation looks to unite at GOP convention

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A year ago, some Florida Republicans dared to dream that one of the state's own would be accepting the GOP presidential nomination in Cleveland at next week's convention.

Former Gov. Jeb Bush was the front-runner, with piles of campaign contributions and a name that, for all of its baggage, designated him as a member of the party's unofficial first family. And U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, young and Hispanic in a party struggling with both of those demographics, showed up in polls as seemingly everyone's second choice, a prime position to pick up support once other candidates dropped out.

Instead, Bush couldn't even make it to the Florida primary after devastating losses in states that voted earlier, and Rubio suspended his campaign after getting smashed by businessman Donald Trump in the Sunshine State --- part of the real-estate mogul's romp to the nomination.

Meanwhile, the primary and its aftermath exposed fault lines in the Florida GOP, divisions that party leaders will hope to heal, or at least patch over, during the party gathering in Cleveland. Especially since the electoral math for any Republican hoping to win the White House remains daunting without Florida.

"It's already, we know, going to be very, very close, and Florida's going to again be critical to Republican success. ... The importance of unity for Florida is elevated this time out," said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida.

Much of the discussion in the lead-up to the gathering, though, has highlighted the fissures in the state GOP. Gov. Rick Scott, who emerged as an enthusiastic Trump supporter following the Florida primary, is scheduled to speak at the convention. So is Attorney General Pam Bondi, the highest-profile Republican in the state to endorse Trump before Floridians voted.

But others are staying away completely. Bush won't attend, and Rubio will be campaigning for re-election in Florida after his surprise decision last month to run for another term in the Senate.

Some members of the state's congressional delegation also won't be in attendance. Congressman Carlos Curbelo, one of Trump's harshest critics in the Florida GOP, reportedly won't go. The offices of Congressmen Rich Nugent, Tom Rooney, Dennis Ross and Dan Webster told The News Service of Florida they won't be in Cleveland next week.

"The congressman has a full schedule of events next week, and will not be attending the convention in Cleveland," Elizabeth Tyrrell, a spokeswoman for Webster, wrote in an email.

Other lawmakers will be there. Congressmen Ander Crenshaw and Jeff Miller are delegates, while Congressmen Ted Yoho and Gus Bilirakis also plan to attend, according to their offices.

Most Florida Republicans who won't attend either didn't provide a reason for skipping the gathering or chalked it up to some reason other than the outsized presence of Trump, one of the party's most controversial nominees in years.

"I'm not a delegate and I'd rather be home, to be honest," said state Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando.

But if political calculations are driving some GOP candidates to avoid Cleveland, other Republicans are taking flak for staying home. Carlos Beruff, a developer challenging Rubio for the GOP nomination for the U.S. Senate seat, slammed Rubio for backtracking on speaking at the convention and offered to take his spot.

"It's no surprise that Marco Rubio and others are shying away from supporting Donald Trump. ... Trump is (motivating) voters across Florida and the country who have felt ignored by the Republican and Democratic establishment alike. He's looking to shake up Washington, and I'm behind him 100 percent," Beruff said.

There will also be agendas at play beyond 2016. Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, a top candidate to run for governor in 2018, will host the state's delegates at a "Florida Grown Breakfast" on Tuesday, featuring neurosurgeon and former presidential candidate Ben Carson.

Other marquee names are likely to speak to the Florida delegation, either to help promote the party's chances in 2016 or to boost their own profiles for future bids for office, perhaps the presidency in 2020 if Trump falls short.

"You can see raw ambition at every level," MacManus said.