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    Fun, not funds, top topic as GOP tour ends

    photo
    [Times photo: Bill Serne]
    RNC committee member Jo McKenzie gets a goodbye hug from "Tony Jannus," as portrayed by Michael Norton, as the committee leaves the Renaissance Vinoy Resort at the conclusion of the group's visit to St. Petersburg.

    By DAVID KARP, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published August 9, 2002
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    Convention in president's hands
    ST. PETE BEACH -- After they inspected their last luxury hotel and sampled their final piece of gourmet chocolate, the Republicans who toured Tampa Bay this week talked a lot about the area's nice hotels, easy roads and top-notch airport.

    But they didn't talk, at least publicly, about the one subject they consider essential to picking a city to host the 2004 Republican National Convention.

    Money.

    In fact, all they would say Thursday on that subject was this: "In the end, this is an important business decision," said Jack Oliver, deputy chairman of the Republican National Committee.

    Committee members also talked little about finances in their closed-door sessions, numerous people who attended the meetings said.

    Gov. Jeb Bush, who met with the GOP group at the Don CeSar Beach Resort and Spa, didn't elaborate on his thoughts about funding the convention with $10-million in state money.

    "It's something I will keep an open mind on," he said.

    Organizers said the middle of a campaign season is the wrong time to discuss financing. They are expected to wait until spring to formally request money from the Florida Legislature.

    By then, Tampa will know whether it won the competition with New York and New Orleans, the two other cities vying for the convention. Then it must either come up with a satisfactory deal or forfeit the win.

    "It's a business decision from top to bottom," said Ellen Williams, chairwoman of the RNC site selection committee.

    The business deal Republican officials will "negotiate" with the chosen city will center on big-ticket items such as hotel rebates, catering contracts and the cost of taxicabs and charter buses. Even the type of housing given to Republican officials for a year before the convention is part of the deal.

    The GOP also gets free hotel rooms for party bigwigs, free use of the Ice Palace and publicly owned Tampa Convention Center, and money for consultants in security, TV, telecommunications and lighting.

    The national Republican party also wants a guarantee it won't be left paying the bill.

    Hosting the convention could cost $50-million, and either the city or a private party must back a letter of credit. The city of Philadelphia made that commitment in 2000 -- and ended up funding millions when private fundraising fell short.

    The same thing happened at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles two years ago.

    All the commitments are set out in an agreement that must be signed by Tampa's mayor, the Republican National Committee and a private group of local Republicans, who will promise to raise private money.

    Tampa's host committee expects to raise $30-million to put on the Republican convention.

    Al Austin, the host committee co-chair who has served as the finance chairman of the Florida Republican Party, said it can be done. Most of the money will come from national companies that want a seat at the president's renomination.

    Outback Steakhouse, for example, sponsored Wednesday's dinner for the GOP group at Fletcher Lounge at the University of Tampa.

    "I will absolutely assure you we can raise the money," Austin said. "We will do anything we can to make this happen."

    An additional $21.8-million could come from public funds, including tourism tax dollars, donated city services and state money.

    Messy details about money didn't preoccupy the Republican entourage. They were busy finishing their tour of the Tampa Bay area.

    Wednesday night, they danced up a sweat on the Starship cruise, then watched an explosion of fireworks over Hillsborough Bay.

    As they drove Thursday to the Renaissance Vinoy Resort and Golf Club in St. Petersburg, an airplane circled overhead with a welcome banner.

    After a tour of downtown St. Petersburg, they played catch with St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker from the pitcher's mound at Tropicana Field.

    At the Don CeSar, staff in white gloves clapped as the entourage arrived.

    Some members escaped to the beach to stick their toes in the gulf.

    "The water is so warm here," said RNC spokeswoman Mindy Tucker, who lives in Washington. "It's like bath water."

    Inside, the group sipped pink lemonade, then dined on lobster potato salad and a chocolate mascarpone tower dessert.

    "I'm here to do the tough stuff," Williams joked, "like smoke your cigars."

    -- Staff writers Adam Smith, Curtis Krueger, Mark Albright and Kathryn Wexler contributed to this report. David Karp can be reached at (813) 226-3376 or karp@sptimes.com.

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