Here's what it will take to get GOP convention
By DAVID KARP and BILL ADAIR
TAMPA -- To Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the reason his beloved Boston won the bidding to host the 2004 Democratic National Convention isn't complicated.
"I think that in the end, they understood that no city wanted it more than Boston did," the Massachusetts Democrat, who personally pledged $500,000 to the effort, said at a Washington news conference last week.
Members of the Democrats' site selection committee laughed. But Kennedy's remark cut to the point.
Aggressiveness counts in the hunt to land a national political convention, which can bring millions in tourism business and priceless media exposure.
When Republicans decide as early as December whether they will hold their national convention in Tampa, New York or New Orleans, the city that wins will have done the most for the Grand Old Party, both politically and financially.
"Wanting it is half the battle," said Carole Brennan, spokeswoman for Boston Mayor Thomas Menino.
This week, the GOP's site selection committee members will hold a conference call to talk about the choice. They're expected to meet next month in Washington.
At that meeting, the committee could make a recommendation that would then go to the full Republican National Committee in January.
Although New Orleans remains a possibility, most of the public attention has focused on Tampa and New York.
"It is a two-city race," said Adam Goodman, a Republican consultant in Tampa who has worked for former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
And the winner will be decided by lobbying, money, facilities and politics.
Boston's mayor began the courtship the day after the city lost the 2000 convention to Los Angeles. He ordered buttons that said, "We can do more in 2004."
City leaders later treated Democrats to dinner on the Boston Commons beside a lagoon, as well as a Boston Red Sox game.
Tampa's leaders put on all the trimmings when top Republicans visited this summer. Pirates and school children carrying roses welcomed them at Tampa International Airport. Fireworks capped an evening cruise on the bay.
"Tampa was very, very special," said Mary Jean Jensen, a site committee member from South Dakota.
Committee member Carolyn Meadows from Georgia hit it off with developer Dick Beard, a co-chair of the Tampa effort who's a Georgia Tech grad.
Meadows was also thrilled when committee members presented her with a sign from Dale Mabry Highway. Her family is related to the World War I hero, and she took the sign to her reunion.
"When I went in with that sign, it was great," Meadows said.
For Tampa, the Republican convention could boost business for the city's convention center and new convention hotel, two anchors to downtown redevelopment. Like landing the Super Bowl, holding a national political convention in Tampa would raise the city's profile.
For New York, a convention would help the city's tourism economy, which took a dive after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Mayor Michael Bloomberg wanted to land both the Democratic and Republican conventions, as well as the 2012 Olympics.
So far, he is one for two.
New York lost the Democratic convention to Boston but won the right to be America's city in the international competition to host the Olympics. Tampa tried but failed to win the chance to bid for the Olympics.
On the eve of the Democrats' selection of Boston, Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe reportedly asked Bloomberg if he would stop courting the GOP if the Democrats picked New York. Bloomberg told him no.
Now that the Democrats have bypassed New York, the city's mayor has pledged to go all out for the Republican convention.
"I know Bloomberg," said Goodman, the Republican consultant, "and Bloomberg will make sure the money is big and real."
The mighty dollar
The biggest advantage that Boston had was money.
Mayor Menino and Kennedy raised $20-million in pledges before Boston won the bid. The city guaranteed the rest of the $49.5-million cost.
Republicans in both New York and Florida have promised to raise what it takes.
For New York, that means raising $71.5-million in private money. Leaders of the New York effort include Jack Hennessy, who served as CEO of Credit Suisse First Boston, and Roland Betts, chairman and founder of Chelsea Piers.
Bloomberg has promised that no money will come from tax revenue, but the convention would still cost New York police overtime and other donated city services. That could be unpopular as New York faces its worst budget crisis since the 1970s. Last week, Bloomberg announced a 25 percent property tax increase and $844-million in cuts in city services.
"He would probably catch all kinds of flack if he would provide any funding for a convention," said Al Austin, co-chair of Tampa's host committee.
New York's convention would cost more because everything costs more in New York. Budget overruns would run up because unions control the labor force.
Tampa's leaders estimate they could host the convention for far less money. The preliminary budget called for raising $50-million, which included a $10-million reserve fund.
"The money not spent on the convention can go for the campaign," Austin said.
Tampa's financial plan calls for obtaining $5-million in local tourism tax money and $10-million from the state Legislature.
The Legislature's top Republicans raised doubts last week about earmarking state money.
"I just don't want us to get into a situation where we are taking much needed tax dollars to romance a convention," said incoming Senate President Jim King, R-Jacksonville.
Incoming House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, R-Plant City, said he doesn't object to using local hotel taxes to help pay for a convention. But he doesn't support using state tax money.
"My position has been that I don't want to spend taxpayer dollars on the conventions, unless it's for something like police," Byrd said. If the Legislature balks, Austin said he can "absolutely" raise the money privately.
Money won't just come from Florida companies and donors, but from corporations across the United States, he said.
Some Republican leaders are concerned that a Florida convention might prompt big GOP donors from Florida to give to the convention rather than to President Bush's re-election effort, said U.S. Rep. Mark Foley, a West Palm Beach Republican.
But Foley said he disagrees.
"We'll have plenty of effort and money to provide the president's re-election," Foley said.
Both New York and Florida offer Bush an attractive political backdrop for launching his re-election campaign.
A New York convention would wrap the president in images of a city that rallied together after the World Trade Center terrorist attacks. Bush's response to those attacks was a defining moment in his presidency.
"I just can't imagine them not going for New York," said Lance deHaven-Smith, a political science professor at Florida State University. "New York holds all that symbolic value for them."
Even so, he said, a New York convention poses some risks if a war in Iraq results in heavy American casualties or if terrorists launch another attack on American soil. Protests could be huge.
New York works great "as long as nothing bad is happening," deHaven-Smith said.
Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, said he has been told that Bush political adviser Karl Rove wants Republicans to take a shot at winning Democratic-leaning states like New York.
"Rove wants to make New York competitive," Sabato said.
"Will a convention do that? Well, it didn't work in Philadelphia in 2000, but you never know."
Even if Bush didn't carry New York, a fight would drain the Democrats' resources, Sabato said.
Florida Republicans say the party would be wasting money on New York, a liberal state that usually votes for Democrats.
"Florida is more of a swing state for the president," said U.S. Rep. Adam Putnam, a Bartow Republican. "You'd like to think they would pick a state where their energy would result in the state coming their way. I don't think New York will come our way even with the convention being there."
While a GOP convention in Tampa could rekindle controversy over the contested 2000 election in Florida, it also could help Bush win a more clear-cut victory in 2004. Gov. Jeb Bush's convincing re-election victory also has renewed enthusiasm among some Republicans for bringing the convention to the Sunshine State.
Putting on the show
Tampa's weakest link may be its lack of a compact area filled with hotels. Delegates like to walk or take an easy shuttle from their hotels to the convention. Hotels for a Tampa convention would be spread across several counties. Some of the best sites are on the Pinellas beaches, 30-50 minutes away.
But Philadelphia and Los Angeles relied heavily on shuttle buses in 2000 to move delegates between hotels and the main arenas.
Republicans also seemed pleased at the proposal to use cruise ships docked near the St. Pete Times Forum for lodging. RNC staffers recently flew to Tampa and Fort Lauderdale to inspect cruise ships that would be used.
Meadows, the committee member from Georgia, said Tampa's hotel situation doesn't pose a problem. The city's proximity to Disney World probably would be a plus, she said.
"That is a great way to get families to go," Meadows said.
Another Tampa advantage is the St. Pete Times Forum, a concert and hockey arena that opened in 1996, said Solomon Yue, a committee member from Oregon.
Even so, he said, the Times Forum may not have enough VIP luxury suites.
"The VIPs do not want to spend time with 500 people," Yue said. "They want to have their own box."
The Times Forum, which has 87 luxury skyboxes, could add more skyboxes in the club lounge area, officials said.
New York's Madison Square Garden, by comparison, has fewer luxury boxes. Committee members described it as "small."
"I don't agree with that at all," said Andrew Appleby, president and CEO of General Sports and Entertainment, a firm that books corporate conventions. The Garden could handle the GOP convention just fine, he said.
"I think Tampa has a bit of an uphill battle," he said.
New York also comes out ahead with its hotels, which are largely within 2 miles of Madison Square Garden, Yue said.
Ultimately, "there is no perfect site," Yue said.
When the committee meets in Washington to reach a decision, they will make a calculation, largely based on economics, he said.
"I don't think it will be an emotional deal," Yue said. "I think I will treat it as a business proposal."
-- Times staff writers Lucy Morgan, Alisa Ulferts and Bill Varian contributed to this report. Times wires also were used.
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