In September, when Mitt Romney opened his Tampa campaign headquarters, one other speaker shared his stage, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi.
Bondi had turned down Romney for an endorsement, staying neutral in the primary, but he wanted her on the stage with him. That's a measure of the political cachet she has built up after only 11 months in office.
Political insiders say she has moved farther and faster politically than almost anyone on the current Florida political scene.
In 2010, she won a statewide race for Florida's highest-profile Cabinet post in her first run for elective office, a rare feat.
She said at the time, and often repeats, that she has no ambitions beyond the attorney general's office.
"I want to run for re-election for attorney general. Do I want to be governor? No," she said. "I just want to be the best attorney general I can.
"In Tallahassee, you see people running for the next office while they're in one — not me."
But her political assets — she's young, photogenic, speaks well in public and has a political base in the crucial Tampa Bay area — make other Republicans see her as a potential candidate.
Her national image, shaped by years of appearances as a Fox News legal affairs commentator, got another boost when she recently helped moderate a presidential primary debate.
For Republicans, such assets outweigh controversies that have affected her tenure as attorney general — the biggest over accusations that her office hasn't been aggressive enough in prosecuting mortgage foreclosure fraud.
"I know she's said she's not running for governor, but she's building a franchise," said state Sen. John Thrasher, a Jacksonville Republican. "She's making friends all over the state, she's visible, she's out there."
Bondi is building her franchise in part by pleasing the conservative GOP base with partisan and ideological stands on issues. That surprises some in her hometown of Tampa who expected the former Democrat, interested in women's and children's issues, to be more moderate.
"I was really taken aback by the absolute partisanship she campaigned on," said former Hillsborough Democratic Party Chairwoman Pat Kemp. "She openly embraced very right-wing, tea party policies."
Bondi, 46, has been married twice and is engaged to Tampa physician Greg Henderson, with a wedding planned for spring. His three grown children, she said, are planning the wedding.
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A former assistant
state attorney, she switched parties when Democratic State Attorney Harry Coe died and was replaced by Republican Mark Ober.
In her campaign, Bondi said she was ideologically a Republican all along and courted the religious right, proclaiming herself strongly anti-abortion.
She declined to take a position on the state ban then in effect on adoption by gay couples. She pledged to defend it against a legal challenge, but the challenge prevailed before she took office.
In office, she has adopted high-profile conservative causes:
The health care lawsuit could reap huge dividends for Bondi.
"If it prevails, she will overnight become a heroine to the party, and she'll suddenly occupy a big space on the national stage, heading into a convention in her hometown," Republican consultant and Bondi backer Adam Goodman of Tampa said.
Critics charged the move was aimed at keeping minority voters off the 2012 voting rolls, noting that Bondi backed legislation to allow the same former felons to get occupational licenses while saying they shouldn't be allowed to vote.
"It's important for people to get jobs so they can remain crime-free," Bondi responded. "They need to do that for a certain amount of time and ask to have their rights restored."
She has also undertaken highly publicized initiatives likely to be popular with Floridians, targeting child pornography and "pill mills" that have given Florida a national reputation as a source of illegal supplies of the synthetic narcotic oxycodone.
In a news conference 10 days ago, she announced 48 arrests from a statewide investigation of pedophiles and child pornography users.
In the coming legislative session, she is seeking tougher laws on timeshare resale fraud and voyeurism. And she wants to create a task force on babies born addicted to prescription narcotics, and human trafficking for labor and the sex trade.
Bondi "has her thumb on the political pulse and tries to seize the issues of the day," said retired University of South Florida political scientist Darryl Paulson. "She may seriously be considered for higher political office down the road."
But Democrats and others charge that Bondi has been too business-friendly on foreclosure fraud.
Rep. Darren Soto, an Orlando Democrat with a district hard-hit by foreclosure, said Bondi "appears to be balancing the interests of the banks and Floridians, when it's clear their job is to look at the interests of Floridians, period."
The charges were fueled by the May firing of two top prosecutors in the field, June Clarkson and Theresa Edwards of Fort Lauderdale, despite a record of good job evaluations.
About the same time, Deputy Attorney General Joe Jacquot left to take a job with one of the companies Edwards and Clarkson were investigating, Jacksonville-based Lender Processing Services, or LPS.
LPS and related companies have been active Republican donors.
Edwards and Clarkson said the firing followed complaints to Bondi's office from targets of the investigation, including LPS.
"We ruffled some feathers of some political friends and we paid the price for it," Clarkson said.
Bondi said she wasn't involved in the firings, but that the reason was poor performance, not political influence. In response to the publicity over the issue, she sought an investigation by the inspector general in Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater's office.
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Democrats in the Legislature
have since sought information on the investigation of the firings, but said they have received no substantive response since August.
"It appears they're trying to stall," Soto said. "They're trying to use passage of time to make this thing go away."
Bondi said she has kept out of the investigation and can't comment publicly on its progress.
Nevada Attorney General Catherine Masto, meanwhile, has filed a lawsuit against LPS, alleging the same kinds of improprieties Clarkson and Edwards said they were investigating: "robo-signing" of documents, kickbacks, fake notarizations, recording fraud and forgery of documents.
"We were leading the nation into these discoveries, which seem to be dead in the water now, at least in Florida," Clarkson said.
As top cop in one of the states hurt worst by the national mortgage meltdown, Bondi is one of the negotiators in a multistate litigation effort against five of the nation's largest lenders.
But attorneys general in several hard-hit states — New York, California, Massachusetts and Kentucky — have removed themselves from the process or questioned whether it will result in a just settlement.
Among their objections was the idea of giving the banks and their officials immunity from criminal prosecution.
Bondi said the effort could produce huge benefits for the states involved, but that she couldn't comment publicly on any of the negotiations.
Today we begin a series of 10 profiles of potential newsmakers in Hillsborough and Pasco counties in 2012. They come from all walks of life, from civic activism and sports to politics. We begin with Tampa's Pam Bondi, who is Florida's attorney general and a rising star in GOP politics.