There's more than one candidate in Florida

TAMPA, Fla — — They are here to support Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, but a handful of Marylanders considering a run for higher office are also hoping to benefit politically from his convention.

The concentration of news media — both from Maryland and from other states — serves to elevate their profiles, and that helps with fundraising. There are more subtle advantages to attending the conventions, too: networking with party leaders, befriending longtime campaign volunteers and hearing national politicians at the top of their game give the most important addresses of their political careers.

"It's another opportunity to access funding from the conservative groups across the country," said state House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell, a Calvert County Republican and Romney delegate who is running a long-shot campaign against Democratic Rep. Steny H. Hoyer. "They don't like Hoyer here."

In their penultimate day in Florida, most of the 37 delegates and 34 alternates from Maryland spent their time Wednesday touring the region — including a cocktail party at the penthouse home of Melvin Sharoky, a Baltimore native who is president of a Tampa-based drug company called Somerset Pharmaceuticals.

Vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan, chair of the House Budget Committee, was scheduled to speak late Wednesday. Romney will formally accept his party's nomination Thursday.

Candidates from across the country and in both political parties have had to weigh carefully whether to attend their national conventions this year. Several who are running in close races — such as Virginia GOP Senate candidate George Allen — ultimately decided that the schmoozy, partylike atmosphere associated with the events sends the wrong message to voters.

In Maryland, Republican Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, who is fighting for survival in this year's election, stayed home. His opponent, Potomac banker John Delaney, will head to Charlotte, N.C., for the Democratic convention next week and intends to address the state delegates during a lunch meeting.

But even some of the most ardently anti-establishment characters in U.S. politics are gathered in Florida this week. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who won his 2010 election with the help of tea party conservatives, spoke from the stage Wednesday. And some of the elements of politics that voters may find distasteful — the fundraising, the clubbiness — are nevertheless essential for successful candidates.

David Craig, the Harford County executive who is considering a run for governor in 2014, repeatedly stressed that he did not come to Tampa to further his potential candidacy. But he acknowledged that he has gained insight into what it takes to run a statewide race by chatting with governors from other states.

"It does give us good name recognition with people who are active in the party," Craig said.

Republican Senate candidate Daniel Bongino, who recently won an endorsement from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, has taken a different approach here than other Marylanders who are running, or thinking about it. He is not staying with the state delegation or participating in its programs. Pressed on whether that was his decision or the party's, Bongino said, "We're not the establishment."

But the first-time candidate has managed to turn the convention into a boon for his campaign.

"There's no greater concentration of media and political figures than here at the RNC," he said. Being in the mix "enables you to get in front of exponentially more people than what I can do in my grassroots campaign. … In a statewide campaign, you can't knock on every door."

Bongino is running against Sen. Ben Cardin, who has significantly more money on hand — $2.1 million compared with slightly more than $100,000 for Bongino. Cardin will attend his party's convention next week in Charlotte. His schedule there will be much more closely coordinated with other state and national party leaders.

The relationships local Republicans are building here won't likely change the course of any campaign. O'Donnell is well respected in his chamber — just as Hoyer is in his — but the Democrat has also raised far more money. Neither O'Donnell's campaign nor Bongino's has received much attention from party officials in Washington.

Maryland candidates say they're not looking up only to the politicians on stage at the Tampa Bay Times Forum. There is also value in spending time with the longtime party volunteers and central committee members who generally work in obscurity. Those are the people who often make the difference between winning and losing an election.

State Del. Steven R. Schuh, who told The Baltimore Sun in January that he was considering a run for Anne Arundel County executive in 2014, said that's one important reason conventions geared for a national audience can also have a big impact at the local level.

"I would say there is value for people who are seeking higher office in attending a political convention," said Schuh, who is a delegate for Romney. "These events help candidates refine their message, establish priorities and build awareness among the party's statewide leadership about the candidate."