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The city hopes to shine on CNN

Hopes are high for the brief moment in the national spotlight.

By CRISTINA SILVA, Times Staff Writer
Published November 28, 2007


ST. PETERSBURG - In recent weeks City Council Chairman Jamie Bennett has anticipated hearing these three words during the CNN/YouTube debate:

"Live from St. Petersburg."

The CNN broadcast of the Republican candidates debate has business leaders and government officials hopeful that the city will get its moment in the national spotlight tonight, however brief.

"For one evening the eyes of the nation will be on St. Petersburg," Bennett said.

The second YouTube debate, featuring questions submitted from members of the online video sharing site, will air live from the Mahaffey Theater. The two-hour debate will most likely span topics as broad as health care and the war in Iraq.

But many viewers from St. Petersburg will be tuning in for another reason - to see how much free exposure the city will get.

Whether it be from an aerial view of downtown or a few kind words from debate host Anderson Cooper, local leaders hope the publicity will trigger interest from potential business owners, tourists and residents.

"Not only is it a very publicized event, but it will be historic for the city and the Mahaffey," Bennett said. "It helps balance our image. We want to show the world that we are a thoughtful community. We are engaged in politics."

Despite the hype, it's unclear just how much camera time St. Petersburg will get.

According to a CNN press release, live shots of St. Petersburg will air during the debate and host Anderson Cooper will name the city at some point. On Thursday, John Roberts will host American Morning on location in St. Petersburg.

But in recent weeks visitors to have had to search the site to determine exactly where the debate would be held. And CNN decided to interview a group of undecided voters in Tampa, not St. Petersburg, during the debate.

In July, the first YouTube debate was held at the Citadel, a military college in Charleston, S.C.

Charlene Gunnells, a spokeswoman for the Citadel, said a few lucky students got to lead the candidates on stage before the debate.

"It was a really exciting experience for us," Gunnells said. "During certain camera shots, if the camera was just right, just above Hillary or Obama you could see our logo."

Harry Lesesne, senior adviser to the mayor of Charleston, said CNN aired images of the city's famous waterfront before the debate.

"It is a great thing for your civic institutions and your civic pride," he said. "It's an opportunity for your business community to present itself to the national media. You have a host of A-list media that comes to town. You also have the candidates and their staff and their families."

Similarly, St. Petersburg officials are hoping to cash in eventually on the free exposure.

"I hear from people who say, 'I have been watching CNN and they keep saying the debate is going to be in St. Petersburg. How did that happen?'" said John Long, president of the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce.

"It reminds people we are a metropolitan hub and that there is an opportunity for people to come here, to move their businesses here."

At the very least, the debate should showcase the Mahaffey, city leaders said. The broadcast is the most significant event to be held at the 2,030-seat theater since a $20-million renovation in 2005. The theater last saw political prominence in 1996, when it hosted the vice presidential debate between Al Gore and Jack Kemp.

"We are very hopeful that CNN will show a lot of the beauty and the grandeur of the Mahaffey Theater," said David Rovine, general manager of the Mahaffey. "It is going to take place at night, so those great views of the water and all the boats will not be seen, but hopefully there will be a lot of interior shots."

And if all those visions of television glory don't exactly come to fruition, at least city leaders will be able to assuage their disappointment at one of the dozens of viewing parties that will be held across the city.

Ron Paul's supporters will watch the event at the Palladium Theater. Google will host a party for the city's glitterati at the Coliseum. The Republican Party will oversee an old-fashioned straw poll and barbecue dinner at Vinoy Park.

"It is just taking on a Super Bowl atmosphere," said Tony DiMatteo, chairman of the Pinellas County Republican Party. "People are coming from out of town. You got everybody pumped and excited."

Cristina Silva can be reached at 727 893-8846 or

[Last modified November 28, 2007, 00:49:52]

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