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    Convention in president's hands

    photo
    [Times photo: Bill Serne]
    Dipping their toes in the gulf Thursday outside the Don CeSar Beach Resort and Spa are, from left, Rosie Tripp of New Mexico, Mary Jean Jensen of South Dakota and Mindy Tucker of Washington, all members of the GOP delegation touring the Tampa Bay area.

    By ADAM SMITH
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published August 9, 2002
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    Fun, not funds, top topic as GOP tour ends
    They munched on paella, drove past Nieman Marcus and admired the gulf view from the Don CeSar.

    And in the end it might all have been a meaningless exercise in Tampa's bid to land the 2004 Republican National Convention.

    The decision really comes down to one guy named Bush.

    Sure, it's essential that the Republican site assessors who surveyed the Tampa Bay area this week left convinced there are enough hotel rooms, buses, cops and money to handle the mega event.

    But that's the minimum requirement for the Big Guava to stay in the running with the Big Apple and the Big Easy. And those visiting Republicans aren't making the final call.

    This is not an Amway convention Tampa is trying to land. This is a political show. And despite all the talk from Republican officials Thursday that this will be a business decision, the real decisions will be made in the White House.

    If President Bush and his chief political adviser, Karl Rove, want the convention in Manhattan -- a unifying reminder of the president's finest hour -- all the hotel rooms, pirate beads and white sand Tampa could muster won't mean a thing.

    "The incumbent president is consulted every step of the way," said Rich Bond, former Republican National Committee chairman. "They will know beforehand what the recommendation is. If they don't like it, that will not be the recommendation."

    Florida's 27 electoral votes are mighty appealing, but not necessarily decisive. No one believes the location of a convention ensures electoral victory, though it rarely hurts. (For exceptions: See Chicago, 1968.)

    The last two Republican conventions were in Pennsylvania in 2000 and California in 1996. Democrats won both states. In the last 10 presidential elections, Republicans won six of their their convention states, while Democrats won seven.

    Some Florida Republican activists even quietly doubt that holding the convention in Tampa would help the state party because it would divert energy from the main goal, re-electing the president.

    On the other hand, getting thousands of Republicans volunteering for a convention would mean thousands of people personally invested in the campaign.

    "It's a big undertaking, don't get me wrong. But if done right it won't detract from our general election efforts," Gov. Jeb Bush said Thursday.

    Clearly, the governor is a key player in Florida's bid. He met privately with Republican officials at the Don CeSar Beach Resort and Spa on Thursday, and he publicly talked up the advantages: "As Tampa Bay goes, so goes Florida, and as Florida goes, perhaps, so goes the country."

    Still, the governor sounds more like sideline supporter than top cheerleader.

    He brushed off questions about using his brotherly sway with the White House. And he was decidedly noncommittal about securing $10-million in state funding for the effort.

    Indeed, Bush used the question of funding the convention to tee off on a proposed constitutional amendment mandating smaller class sizes. If the multibillion-dollar amendment passes, "all bets are off," he said. Not only would the state be hard-pressed to fund the convention, it also could be looking at social service cuts and tax increases.

    Ultimately the event is less of a convention than it is a national television show. What the White House wants is not merely a capable and appealing place to entertain delegates. It wants to attract TV viewers.

    The shrinking convention TV audience has become a big deal to party leaders. In 2000, 16 percent of the potential TV audience saw George W. Bush win the GOP convention in Philadelphia. That's half the 32 percent of viewers who saw Gerald Ford win the nomination over Ronald Reagan in 1976.

    One of the key claims of New York's pitch is that more people would tune in to a New York City convention.

    "It's a fact that broadcasting live from New York would get them better ratings," said Cristyne Nicholas, president and chief executive of NYC & Co., the city's convention and visitors bureau. "People today are more interested in seeing things that happen in New York."

    Tampa had something to prove this week to the Republican National Committee. It needed to show it has the wherewithal to pull off the kind of major event that New York and New Orleans have staged before.

    The initial reviews from the visiting Republicans were strong, but much of the decisionmaking is outside the control of local leaders.

    "The politics are good for us, but that's not something we can influence," developer Dick Beard, co-chairman of the Tampa host committee, said as the GOP visitors prepared to head to New York. "That's something that's going to be decided by the president of the United States. But we've done everything we could possibly do to make sure our case is well-accepted."

    -- Times staff writers David Karp, Mark Albright and Curtis Krueger contributed to this report.

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