TAMPA, Florida — Half carnival, half war zone, this western Florida city was all decked out for the Republican National Convention Sunday. Barricades and fences cordoned off the Tampa Bay Times Forum where the major events would be held, while mounted police and bomb-sniffing dogs patrolled the streets.
Everyone from the sheriff’s office to the National Guard seemed to be involved in security, but the atmosphere was sheer hilarity.
“It’s kind of like the Olympics,” said Scott, who makes his living repairing musical instruments in nearby Brandon.
“Or Disney World,” chimed in his wife, Poungsri, a massage therapist who emigrated from Thailand to the United States 42 years ago.
The pair was in town to observe the spectacle, not to take part.
“I’m not very political,” said Scott. “But everyone seems friendly.”
Most people were pretty upbeat, if you discount the women from CODEPINK, a “women-initiated grassroots peace and social justice movement working to end the war in Iraq, stop new wars, and redirect our resources into health care, education and other life-affirming activities,” according to the group’s website.
Dressed as female sexual organs with signs saying “Read my Lips,” several women stood outside the Tampa Convention Center, where the media were housed.
“GOP, can’t you see, women want equality,” they chanted, alternating that with “GOP, hear our voice, it’s our bodies, it’s our choice.”
Alli McCracken, 23, coordinator for CODEPINK’s D.C. office, was fairly categorical in her condemnation of the Republican Party’s “shocking right-wing extremism,” which amounted to a “war on women’s bodies.”
“If these guys get in, we’re in real trouble,” she said. “They want to take away access to birth control, abortion rights … everything the women before us worked for.”
Across town, Ron Paul supporters were staging a rally that also had some criticism for the Republican Party and its nominee. Paul, the Libertarian who ran for the Republican nomination, has dozens of delegates at the convention. They are bound to vote for presumptive nominee Mitt Romney on the first ballot, but it is expected that they will push for more exposure for Paul and his views.
Paul addressed thousands of supporters at the University of Southern Florida’s Sun Dome Stadium, but he will not be on stage at the Republican convention.
Paul had been offered the opportunity to speak, but only if he allowed Romney’s team to vet his remarks, and if he delivered a whole-hearted endorsement of the Republican candidate.
Paul declined, according to the New York Times.
“It wouldn’t be my speech,” Mr. Paul said. “That would undo everything I’ve done in the last 30 years. I don’t fully endorse (Romney) for president.”
But in general, the protest so far has been muted. Republican activists like Victoria Bucher were selling buttons advertising the Romney/Ryan ticket, as well as one with Charlie Brown characters and the cheerful slogan, “Kids for Romney.”
“I am worried about the middle class,” said Bucher, who sells corporate real estate in Orlando, Florida. “This is not the America I grew up in, and it’s not the America I want to pass on to our children.”
President Barack Obama deserves a healthy share of the blame for the state of the economy, she insisted, and Mitt Romney could lead the nation out of its crisis.
“I think Romney has a good plan,” she said. “He can make America great again.”
The convention was scheduled to begin Monday morning, but on Sunday Republican Party officials decided to truncate the proceedings by one day.
The stated reason was Tropical Storm Isaac, which had already battered Haiti and Cuba, and was picking up strength as it headed for the Florida Keys.
Schools were closed on Monday in much of western Florida, but hardened Floridians were not impressed by the warnings being issued by the weather service.
“We’re pretty used to that sort of thing here,” said Scott.
In nearby Clearwater, boats sat calmly in the harbor; no move was being made to haul them out in advance of the storm.
“I don’t think it’s gonna be much,” said a waitress at the Dunedin Marina Fish Market. “It’s a good thing they canceled the first day of the convention – people will be bored, and the beaches can use the business.”
But it is unlikely that there will be much beach trekking on Monday. By mid-afternoon on Sunday the dark clouds were already moving in, and the wind was picking up. Lashing rain descended about 4:30, threatening to derail the kickoff welcome event.
But the convention officials were determined to hold the Republican rally for delegates and media Sunday evening at Tropicana Stadium, in St. Petersburg, about 30 minutes from Tampa.
“They are going to have it come hell or high water,” said Scott.
Monday morning the gavel will come down to open the convention, but it will immediately adjourn until Tuesday afternoon, when calm is supposed to return to the area.
Convention officials are hopeful that most of the important events can be sandwiched into the remaining three days. The Republican wingding was already scheduled for a day longer than the Democratic one, and no major television networks were planning on live coverage from the convention on Monday, something that had Republican officials fighting mad.
In fact some cynics feel that the willingness to scrap Monday’s events might have been tied to the networks’ refusal to cover them.
“I think the lack of media interest could have been one of the factors in the cancelation,” said one of the media assistants handing out press credentials.
Political conventions are little more than glorified advertisements for the candidate and the Party these days; the choice of nominee has already been made. Few expects fireworks at either convention, and with the general negative tone of the campaign so far, media moguls may be forgiven for their reluctance to commit expensive air time to a spectacle that has already turned many Americans off.
“Politics is a very dirty business,” said Sylvana, a hotel manager in Clearwater. “I’m sorry to say it, but I just don’t want to hear anything about it.”
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