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GOP passes on politics, goes for spectacle

By ADAM C. SMITH, Times Political Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 7, 2003

TAMPA -- Of all the arguments for holding the Republican convention in Tampa, here was one of the weakest: It would help ensure the GOP wins Florida's 27 electoral votes.

Try telling that to the Republicans who chose their last two convention sites. They gathered in Philadelphia in 2000 and lost Pennsylvania to Al Gore. They gathered in San Diego in 1996 and lost California to Bill Clinton.

Now they'll be in New York in 2004, though the party hasn't carried the state since Ronald Reagan in 1984.

Nominating conventions are not about appealing to local voters. They are about showcasing a candidate for a national audience. In the end, Tampa could not compete with the patriotic imagery of New York.

Florida remains America's biggest swing state and crucial for President Bush's re-election. But few political observers believe holding the convention in Tampa would have been anything but a marginal help to his winning Florida in 2004.

"Most of the time it makes no difference where the convention's held," said Larry Bartels, a Princeton University professor who has studied presidential primaries. "The convention will get a lot of attention in Florida whether it's held in Tampa or New York or anywhere else."

Sure, a Tampa convention could energize volunteer foot soldiers by giving them a personal stake in the election. But it also would have required massive resources and energy from Florida Republicans who otherwise might focus on re-electing the president instead of holding a megaparty. Filling hotel rooms does not translate into winning swing voters.

Florida Republican Party chairman Al Cardenas expected electoral equations to be a minor factor in the decision, and one member of the site selection committee said Florida's political importance never even came up.

"Historically, there's no evidence to show that the state that holds the convention is carried by Republicans," said Solomon Yue, a site selection committee member and Republican National Committee member from Oregon.

That didn't stop people from reminding Yue of the stakes in Florida, however.

One Floridian e-mailed him recently noting that Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Graham was mulling a run for president, and urging Yue to vote for a Tampa convention to fend off "the threat from Bob Graham ."

Given its political importance, its Bush family connections and its history as the recount state, Florida will be in the spotlight during the 2004 presidential election without a convention. Gov. Jeb Bush's lopsided re-election win over Bill McBride may have weakened the state's battleground status, though, and some leaders in Tampa's convention effort think that hurt them.

"They figured this one's in the bag, and maybe we need to go someplace else that has some potential," said Al Austin, a major party fundraiser and a leader in Tampa's convention bid.

Indeed, some Democrats are fretting that after their party's abysmal November showing, the national party will all but write off Florida to the Republicans. That fear, of course, evaporates if Graham jumps in the race.

In the meantime, disappointed Tampa leaders on Monday already were talking up their prospects for hosting the 2008 Republican convention. Dick Beard, another prominent Republican donor and leader in the convention effort, broke into a grin as he considered the possibility that Florida might have an even stronger inside connection then.

"Who knows," he mused, "what Jeb Bush will do in 2008."

-- Adam C. Smith can be reached at (727)893-8241 or .

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