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Tampa finishes second in '04 convention derby

By BILL ADAIR and DAVID KARP

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 7, 2003


WASHINGTON -- In the end, sunny beaches and family ties couldn't compete with big-city glitz and Sept. 11 symbolism as Republican leaders recommended New York instead of Tampa to host the 2004 national convention.

Tampa was a close second, GOP officials said Monday, while New Orleans, the other finalist, was third.

"It was a close call at the end," said Chuck Yob, a member of the party's site selection committee, which voted unanimously Monday to recommend New York.

Ron Kaufman, another committee member, said the choice was so close that "I wouldn't call Tampa second. I'd call it 1a."

GOP officials said they liked Manhattan's tight concentration of hotels -- Tampa's were sprawled as much as 30 miles from the convention arena -- and the fact that the Big Apple is home to major media companies. At a time of declining TV ratings for political conventions, the party wants this one to attract more coverage.

Yob said the hotels played a key role, despite Tampa's efforts to solve the problem by using cruise ships. "I would say the big disadvantage was the rooms," Yob said of the bay area's proposal. "The close proximity (to the convention site) was the important thing."

Yob said hosting conventions usually doesn't win electoral votes, so "there is no political advantage being in Florida. Your only political advantage is making sure you have the media coverage. New York can do very well. It is the media capital of the world."

Florida Republicans had harnessed all their political horsepower, including family ties.

Gov. Jeb Bush made calls to his brother's top political advisers. Tampa leaders enlisted high school classmates of the committee members to send supportive e-mails. And Tampa offered a novel plan to have President Bush speak at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg.

But the bay area couldn't overcome the allure of New York, which will be hosting its first GOP national convention.

"I'm a loyal soldier in the Army of George W," said Jeb Bush. "If he wants to go to New York, I'll go to New York." The governor said Florida "is an important state for electoral politics, but New York has powerful symbolic meaning to my brother."

Rep. Mark Foley, R-West Palm Beach, joked that his party was "crawling into Hillary's lair while we could bask in the warmth of Jeb's victory." But Foley said having the convention in New York enabled the party to raise millions of dollars there without siphoning money from the crucial presidential campaign in Florida.

Dick Beard, a local developer who spent much of last year working on the Tampa effort, acknowledged that New York was an ideal location.

"I really believe they felt New York City, given what has happened, was the best place to showcase the president. They used that word: showcase," said Beard, who learned of the decision shortly before noon Monday in a conference call with Republican National Committee chairman Mark Racicot, deputy chairman Jack Oliver and site selection chairwoman Ellen Williams.

Over the next few weeks, GOP staffers will negotiate a contract with New York. The 165 members of the RNC are likely to ratify the deal at a meeting in late January.

Sept. 11 symbolism

President Bush will not only return to the site of the terrorist attacks, but to the city where he rallied the nation. Republicans often cite his visit to ground zero on Sept. 14, 2001, as the moment his presidency began.

On that day, Bush met with relatives of the victims and made an emotional visit to the site, where he grabbed a bullhorn, stood on the rubble and spoke to rescue workers.

During the 2004 convention, it's likely Bush will visit the site, providing TV networks with fresh images and an opportunity to rerun the dramatic 2001 footage. A conservative columnist has even suggested that Bush then walk to the convention hall, which would be seen as a bold and defiant act in the face of current threats.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Monday that New York is "a great platform for George W. Bush -- I think it is a great platform for anybody. If I were running a convention I would be standing there at Madison Square Garden, which is the ultimate sports venue, I'd be standing in Lower Manhattan with the Statue of Liberty behind me, I'd be standing in Flushing Meadow Park with the Globe from the old World's Fair there, I'd be walking the streets of New York City."

Opening their wallets

Hosting a convention doesn't necessarily provide an electoral boost in the presidential election.

Republicans held their 1996 convention in San Diego and lost California. They held their 2000 convention in Philadelphia and lost Pennsylvania.

The more important consideration is whether the host city provides a good launching spot for the campaign and whether it makes smart use of political money.

By choosing New York, the party gets a double financial bonus.

It gets New York corporate money to pay the convention costs, and it gets the usual Florida contributors to pay for the crucial campaign in the Sunshine State.

Had the party chosen Tampa, Florida contributors would have been tapped for the convention costs and then would have had less to contribute to the campaign.

Foley said party leaders did not want to divert Florida money.

"I'm sure it's all about the money," Foley said. "That's what people were saying from the beginning -- it was money, money, money."

Florida Senate President Jim King, R-Jacksonville, said he was disappointed Tampa was not picked, but he said it would have been a strain on the state at a time when Democrats will be trying to win back legislative seats.

"It would have taken a heck of a lot of sweat equity, and probably would have diverted fundraising efforts for the state. ... Am I disappointed, yeah, I would have liked to see Florida showcased, but it's not a wooden stake in the heart," King said.

State Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, said he was disappointed with the party's choice but recognized its benefits.

"I would have loved to have us have the opportunity to showcase west-central Florida to the world," Lee said. "Selfishly, I think most of us have felt taking on something the magnitude of the Republican National Convention would have been a huge distraction to state and local people in the 2004 (election) cycle."

Gov. Bush said the possible presidential campaign of Democratic Sen. Bob Graham did not play a role.

"The presidential race is way off in the future," the governor said. "They can't make a decision based on where 10 opponents are from."

Choosing New York carries some risks. Some conservatives are unhappy with Bloomberg, a Democrat-turned-Republican who has proposed a tax increase.

But other Republicans say choosing New York shows the party is so confident it can hold its nominating convention in a Democratic stronghold. And who knows? Some Republicans say they might even win the state.

Decision day

When the site selection committee met on a conference call Monday morning, it wasn't clear what would happen, members said. It still looked like either Tampa or New York could win.

"I had no idea this morning until we heard all the pros and cons," said Mary Jean Jensen, a committee member from South Dakota.

Coming into the meeting, it was a two-city race between Tampa and New York. New Orleans had met the minimum requirements to host the convention, but committee members said it was out of the running because New Orleans leaders had shown little enthusiasm for the event.

New York's selling points included the close proximity of hotel rooms, the financial muscle of the Big Apple's corporate leaders and the media presence in New York. In response to complaints about high costs in the city, Bloomberg negotiated hotel rates averaging $156 per night, down from the usual $250-$300.

"New York has got more resources than anybody else in the country and they put together a spectacular business deal," said Kaufman, a Republican lobbyist on the site selection committee.

By contrast, Tampa's hotels were spread over a 30-mile radius from the Pinellas beaches to Lakeland. And, the bay area has relatively few big corporations.

"It was a business decision and came down to what made the most business sense," said Solomon Yue Jr., a national committeeman from Oregon on the RNC site selection committee. "There are so many factors that weigh into the decision, and there are many factors that go into the comparison because you can't always compare one with the other. Labor costs in New York are much higher than in Tampa or New Orleans, but other stuff comes into play like New York has more Fortune 500 companies," which means more corporate contributions.

"Hotel rooms were a constant source of concern," said Foley. "I'm not sure the cruise ship idea ever took hold."

The committee's recommendation is likely to be approved by the party at a meeting Jan. 29-Feb. 1.

"I think from a process standpoint, this is pretty final," said U.S. Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Bartow, who had lobbied on Tampa's behalf. "I think the only chance we might have would be if they can't reach an agreement with New York, but I think that's pretty slim."

Tampa leaders tried to stay upbeat about the outcome.

"We have nothing to be discouraged about," said Tampa Mayor Dick Greco. "Just to be on the same playing field with New York is wonderful."

Al Austin, the leader of Tampa's bid, vowed to try again.

"In 2008, I can guarantee you, we will be the front-runner for the convention."

Kaufman, the GOP lobbyist, said that might happen.

"Most of the time rookies don't win. There is no shame in running. My guess is, if you keep running, by 2008, you will be the front-runner."

-- Times staff writers Alisa Ulferts, Lucy Morgan and Adam Smith contributed to this report.

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