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Timing, glitz, hotel rooms thwarted group's dream


© St. Petersburg Times, published January 7, 2003

TAMPA -- The phone rang all weekend at Al Austin's Westshore house. Friends wanted to know about Tampa's chances of landing the 2004 Republican National Convention.

But Austin couldn't say much.

Austin, co-chair of the Tampa host committee, had not spoken to national party leaders since mid December. Frustrated by the silence, Tampa leaders called Washington last week to ask: What's our weakness? How can we improve?

"They said there were no weaknesses," said Paul Catoe, president of the Tampa Bay Convention & Visitors Bureau.

So Tampa waited.

Austin played his usual weekend tennis match and watched the NFL playoff games, concluding there was nothing more he could do.

And there was nothing he could do about the factors that ultimately steered the Republican political convention to New York for the first time.

Tampa couldn't match New York's allure as a political backdrop. The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center were a turning point for the president, and Republicans are eager to court the city's legions of Democrats. Tampa also couldn't counter New York's media giants, or the 21,000 hotel rooms in Manhattan.

Even the re-election of the president's brother, Gov. Jeb Bush, couldn't alter those dynamics. Maybe the governor's easy win hurt, making Florida appear less of a swing state.

"Timing is everything in life," Austin said Monday. "Success is being at the right place at the right time."

Tampa leaders were willing to add incentives to lure the RNC. National party leaders didn't seek any.

"They told us we weren't short on anything," Catoe said. "There was nothing left at the table."

Austin could see signs of a New York victory over the weekend. There had been no last-minute dealmaking with Tampa. He had heard that one of New York's issues with using the James A. Farley Post Office had been resolved.

He told his wife on Sunday: "It's a long shot."

Sunday night, RNC deputy chairman Jack Oliver called Austin and other Tampa leaders to say a decision would be made Monday at 11 a.m. There were no winks, no nods.

Austin, Catoe, co-chair Dick Beard and Tampa Mayor Dick Greco gathered in a conference room at the Crown Plaza hotel about 11:30 a.m. to take the call.

"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.

At a news conference, Austin looked crestfallen. His face was flush; he held his hands behind his back. He was wearing a blue tie with gray elephants, the symbol of the Grand Old Party.

The mayor wrapped his arm around Austin and patted his back. He whispered words of encouragement into his ear.

"That is life. You have to go on," Austin said.

Hosting the Republican National Convention had been the group's dream, particularly Austin's. He had been a Republican before there were many in Hillsborough County. A relentless fundraiser, he was constantly dialing for dollars. Friends would say: "Every time, you have lunch with Al, it's going to cost you."

But Austin was eager to raise the $50-million for a convention that would showcase his hometown.

Austin's wife, Beverly, suggested that they slow down. Austin, 73, told her: Two more years. Let's get the president re-elected; let's bring the convention to Tampa.

Members of the RNC site selection committee could see how badly Tampa leaders wanted it. When the committee visited in August, the pillowcases in each hotel room were embroidered with the Tampa host committee logo. Chocolates were left every night.

Desserts covered an entire buffet table during a 11/2-hour cruise on the Starship. After dinner and dancing, a fireworks display lit up the sky.

Later, site committee members received a stream of e-mails from long-lost friends, now pulling for Florida. Committee member Carolyn Meadows was thrilled when Tampa leaders presented her with a sign from Dale Mabry Highway. They had discovered that Meadows' family was related to Dale Mabry, a World War I hero.

"They did a brilliant job of lobbying in a very personal way," said Ron Kaufman, a committee member who works as a Washington lobbyist.

"You have to love Tampa's can-do attitude," Kaufman said. "When hotel rooms became a problem, they said, 'We'll put cruise ships in the harbor.' "

New York lobbied just as hard. Former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani sent committee members signed copies of his book Leadership. They ate breakfast at Tiffany's and lunch at the New York Stock Exchange. Members got hand-written notes from Broadway stars.

"Their strength is all the glitz," Kaufman said.

Tampa had Gov. Jeb Bush on its side. The governor called Karl Rove, the president's chief political adviser, and Ken Mehlman, the White House political director.

But the governor never called his older brother in the White House.

Jeb Bush didn't want to appear to be lobbying him. At the same time, Bush denied media reports that he didn't really want the convention. "As I have said consistently, the convention would be great for Florida, great for Tampa Bay and great for George W.'s re-election," Bush said in a Friday e-mail.

Austin also didn't want to appear to be pushing too hard. At the White House Christmas party in December, Austin wondered whether he should mention Tampa's bid when he saw the president. He didn't want to break protocol.

He waited for his moment in the receiving line, and then told the president, gingerly, that he was leading Tampa's bid. They chitchatted, and then Austin said he was sorry for bringing the convention up.

No problem, the president said.

At the party, Austin was assured that Tampa was still in the running. Then after Christmas, there was silence.

Meanwhile, Mayor Michael Bloomberg was working to sew-up problems.

He convinced the city's labor unions to sign no-strike agreements and got low rates from the city's hotels. Instead of the $250-to-$300-per-night rates, delegates will pay an average of $156. That neutralized one of Tampa's big advantages: affordable hotels.

Bloomberg assembled what he called a "dream team" to lobby the RNC, headed by Giuliani. Despite a city budget shortfall, Bloomberg promised to guarantee $71.5-million. He also made the city responsible for raising $60.9-million from private donors.

"I do not expect any difficulties in raising that kind of money in New York City," Bloomberg said Monday.

In Tampa, Greco didn't guarantee the $50-million needed for a Florida convention. Local banks signed a letter covering pledges.

Last month, Bloomberg, Cablevision CEO Chuck Dolan and George W. Bush's friend Roland Betts had dinner with Rove to close the deal, the Associated Press reported.

Monday night, Austin and his wife were in Tallahassee for the governor's inaugural ball. Florida's top Republicans were celebrating, but not for the victory Austin had hoped for all weekend long.

-- Times staff writers Lucy Morgan and Adam C. Smith contributed to this report.

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