Editor's note: This story first appeared in Newsmax magazine's May edition.
A truism of political science in Florida is that the road to winning its 29 Electoral College delegates in November runs through the I-4 corridor. As this broad swath connecting Tampa to Orlando and Daytona goes, they say, so goes the state.
That explains why, even as all eyes remain fixed on the primary battles occurring this month in such states as Texas, Kentucky, and Nebraska, the activity most crucial to GOP hopes of recapturing the White House may be taking place in Tampa, Fla.
Tampa is where the local Host Committee and the RNC’s Committee on Arrangements are putting the finishing touches to what is expected to be the biggest political event in the big swing-state’s history: the 2012 Republican Nominating Convention.
From Aug. 27 to Aug. 30, the city on Florida’s Gulf Coast will become a cynosure for political junkies nationwide, and across the globe. And while there’s no guarantee a successful convention will put the Sunshine State in the red column this year, political history suggests that the rest of the state will probably follow the influential I-4 corridor’s lead.
Preparations are already well underway to accommodate the 35,000 visitors that the convention is expected to draw. Some infrastructure projects have been accelerated, while others have been put off so that visitors won’t be distracted by “under construction” signs.
The primary venue for the convention is the Tampa Times Forum, which serves as home of the 2004 Stanley Cup Champions the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Forum recently completed a $40 million upgrade.
Financial whiz and team owner Jeffrey Vinik signed off on a plan to yank 500 seats out at one end of this swanky arena, thereby revealing breathtaking vistas of the downtown Tampa skyline that loom above the wending Hillsborough River.
The 30,000-square-foot expansion included hospitality space, high-tech meeting rooms, a posh box office, and an enormous pipe organ that displays a different color each time a new note is struck.
So far, the Host Committee that persuaded the RNC to bring the convention to Tampa has fared remarkably well in its fundraising efforts despite a Florida economy hit hard when the real estate bubble exploded.
At last word it had raised at least half of the ambitious $55 million goal it agreed to. Longtime Florida Republican fundraiser and real estate developer Al Austin tells Newsmax that wooing fundraisers for a convention is a “much, much more difficult sell” than soliciting donations for a specific candidate.
“Ninety percent of the people in Florida we talk with about this, they’ve never been to a convention,” Austin tells Newsmax. “So you try to put it in perspective, where they can feel the electricity in the air.”
The Host Committee raises the money, but it doesn’t get to spend it. The power of the checkbook belongs to the RNC Committee on Arrangements, which signs the contracts and writes the checks. The Host Committee, which has several prominent Florida Democrats on its board, must remain strictly nonpartisan to preserve its tax exempt, nonprofit status.
Tight security at the convention is a given. The Department of Homeland Security is contributing $50 million to each party for security arrangements. Austin points out that both Central Command and the Special Forces Command, which took out Osama bin Laden, are headquartered at nearby MacDill Air Force Base. So he feels pretty good about security.
During the convention, Tampa will accommodate a small army of journalists — some 15,000 of them. Most members of the media will be stationed at the 600,000-square-foot Tampa Convention Center, located a long block away from the Forum. Thanks to a convenient sky bridge, reporters won’t have to dodge traffic to reach the arena.
Austin, the Host Committee chairman, is confident that this year’s convention will be the best ever.
“When you see the layout, you’ll understand that of all the cities that have had conventions — and I’ve been to every one since ’72 — we have the best configuration, the best setup, and the best arrangement and the support of the community above and beyond anything we could ever hope for,” he says.
The man directly responsible for making sure everything goes well is Austin’s colleague, Tampa attorney and businessman Ken Jones. The president of the Host Committee, Jones grew up in Tampa before getting his law degree and moving to the nation’s capital to work for the RNC. This will be his fifth Republican convention.
“I’ve seen it from a lot of different angles,” Jones tells Newsmax. “From the angle of being the lawyer, being a general volunteer, being an adviser, being on the Committee on Arrangements side, being on the host committee. But seeing it from this perspective, watching it all meld together, it is fun to watch. And this is my hometown, which is even better.”
If Republicans can leave Tampa riding a wave of momentum across the I-4 corridor, that fun may continue through November.
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