TALLAHASSEE -- There was only one problem at a 1972 debate between surrogates for President Nixon and Democratic nominee George McGovern on the Seton Hall campus in New Jersey: No one showed up to speak for Nixon.
Enter Al Cardenas.
Cardenas, a law student, listened to a state senator argue forcefully on behalf of McGovern and then volunteered to fill in for the missing Nixon representative.
It was a tough audience, but he got a warm response.
"I think they just appreciated my taking on this state senator," Cardenas said.
That taste of politics was all it took to launch Cardenas on a lifetime of political involvement that culminated with his election this year as chairman of the Florida Republican Party.
Taking the reins of the party following the tumultuous, six-year tenure of Tom Slade is not much easier than braving an audience packed with McGovern supporters, but Cardenas is not one to choose the easy path.
In his only bid for elective office, he ran against the late U.S. Rep. Claude Pepper, a Democratic icon, in a 1978 congressional race in Miami.
"I lost, obviously," Cardenas summarizes.
When Slade departed as chairman, he left an organization that was enjoying unprecedented success, with a Republican governor, Republican majorities in the House and Senate and a predominantly Republican congressional delegation.
Slade also left hurt feelings and bruised egos among those who clashed with him.
Cardenas can take a more conciliatory approach.
"Slade is a sledgehammer and Cardenas is probably a ball-peen hammer," state Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville, said.
Cardenas said he faces a different task from Slade and his job calls for different skills.
For instance, Cardenas said, fund raising has become easier with the Republicans controlling the levers of government.
The leader of the minority party needed to stir things up and convince people that change was needed, he said.
"Instead of throwing hand grenades, our job now is showing the people of Florida that our vision is better for them," he said.
However, as the party grows it becomes more fractious and it becomes more difficult to avoid intraparty squabbling.
Cardenas said it is important to ensure that the legislative and executive branches are working together, but without squelching dissent and debate.
Senate Republican Leader Jack Latvala of Palm Harbor, who clashed with Slade on occasion, said Cardenas is giving the party what it needs at this point.
"He's providing a calming leadership to the party," Latvala said.
Jacksonville Mayor John Delaney said Cardenas is the right man at the right time, focusing the party's attention on issues like improving the schools and making government work.
"He understands we need to soften the Republican image," Delaney said.
Although Cardenas has been active in Florida politics for more than 20 years and is well-known among party regulars, he has yet to achieve the high profile that Slade did.
People still tend to call him Car-DEE-nas, whereas he pronounces it CAR-den-as.
While reporters clustered around Slade for quotes after Gov. Jeb Bush addressed the Legislature, an aide to Cardenas was collaring writers to ask if they wanted to speak to him.
King acknowledged that the attention to Slade could be "sort of a thorn under the blanket" for the new chairman.
He added that Cardenas, a Cuban-American from Miami, could have trouble relating as well as Slade did in rural North Florida counties.
King said Cardenas joked, "I'm going to send myself to bubba school."
But in a large, diverse state like Florida, nobody fits in well with all constituencies.
"The sword cuts both ways," Slade said. "Al Cardenas probably would not be as effective in Starke as I would be, but he thoroughly and completely understands the politics of Dade County. …