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Bearers of political campaign bling all want one thing: to be heard

TAMPA

The elephants, Republicans all, paraded along Dinah Lang Swickey's kitchen table with twinkling red trunks and rhinestone eyes.

"They really sparkle in the sun," said Dinah.

If the elephants sparkle right on camera, on lapels, on hats, they'll become part of a bigger story starring doodads, trinkets and political frippery, physical connections to a divine process. Fifty thousand people will come to Tampa this month for the Republican National Convention. They will be passionate. They'll want to support, and they'll want to protest. But how?

Stuff helps. Boater hats. Sashes. T-shirts. Pins. The 2012 Tampa Bay Host Committee is selling official convention shirts and mugs, said host committee chief operating officer Matt Becker. And for $3, there's the 2-inch piece de resistance, the most ubiquitous symbol of political rah-rah since people started liking Ike. The button.

"You can't have a convention without a button," said Becker.

• • •

The journalist H.L. Mencken called political conventions "a show so gaudy and hilarious, so melodramatic and obscene, so unimaginably exhilarating and preposterous that one lives a gorgeous year in an hour."

That was 1924. The thirst for ostentatious display is even stronger since television came along, increasing odds that an everyman could wear a wacky hat and have his message noticed by millions.

In March, 300 business owners came to a forum at Lowry Park Zoo looking for ways to get merchandise before Republican eyes, into the 76 event venues and 36 host hotels. Dozens of companies with everything from presidential Christmas ornaments to blinged tank tops are listed in the committee's small-business directory.

"I'm going to approach all of the different hotels where the different states are staying," said Kim Roberts of Clearwater's Island Moose Rhinestone Designs. "We'll be offering up two designs. One is the American flag in rhinestones, and the other is an elephant with one big star in the center."

Other vendors are paying $27 for a temporary city permit to sell on the streets around the Tampa Bay Times Forum. If they don't have a permit, police could ask them to stop selling.

Dinah Lang Swickey and her sister, Laura Lang, plan to get a permit. They figure a lot of their customers will buy spur of the moment. They understand the power of glitter.

They call themselves the Blingers of Tampa. They got tired of buying rhinestone pins for their Gasparilla krewe costumes, so they taught themselves to solder and made their own. Dinah's daughter works for Rep. Scott Rigell in Virginia. She suggested the congressman's wife might like a RIGELL pin. She did.

Laura and Dinah sent pins to Rick Perry's wife, Anita. She loved them, too. When the sisters heard the RNC was coming, they asked the party for permission to use the official elephant logo. They said they received it. Now they're advertising to dozens of states, delegations, politicians, politicians' wives. To Mitt Romney.

"He's on the mailing list," said Laura.

National dealers have been busy shipping merchandise. Steve Ferber and his wife run Lori Ferber Presidential Memorabilia in Arizona. Sometimes they predict election winners based on who sells the most stuff.

"It's scary what you see people wear, when they're covered from head to toe," Steve said. "We've had people buy slippers with presidential candidate photos on them. We've seen flip-flops, which were popular in the John Kerry days."

Steve has collected political stuff since he was 14, when he printed thousands of postcards to commemorate Richard Nixon's second inauguration.

"Collectors and dealers in political memorabilia, they're really frustrated historians by nature," he said. "It just grows on you and becomes part of your life."

Almost 40 years later, Steve still has 2,000 Nixon postcards.

• • •

"You collected a cheesehead?"

Larry and Harry have had this talk. They troll conventions each cycle carrying big portfolios, asking strangers for pins, hats, and to Larry's dismay, sometimes Wisconsin cheeseheads.

When people learn Larry Bird and Harry Rubenstein are curators at the Smithsonian and their cheesehead could end up in the museum's collection of campaign memorabilia, some happily fork it over. Others are so umbilical about their lapel pins, they clutch their collars.

A Smithsonian curator has visited every presidential convention since the 1960s. Larry and Harry will visit Tampa this month. During editing, Larry and Harry weed out the less memorable memorabilia, debate cheeseheads and build a meaningful collection.

American political paraphernalia is as old as American politics.

George Washington supporters stamped round metal discs and sold them along the East Coast for the 1789 inauguration. People attached them to clothes with little shanks. "GW," they said. "Long live the president."

Campaigns became more cogent and catchy, more like slogans we rattle off today. I Like Ike. Change. Forward. Believe in America. The origin of the practice is arguable.

"Some people would say 1828, Andrew Jackson," said Larry. "Other people would say 1840, and that would be the log cabin campaign of William Henry Harrison where you had a consistent imagery, a thematic use of symbols in the log cabin and the hard cider barrels."

Back when men wore hats in polite company, straw boaters were the coolest option for steamy summer conventions. By the 1960s, boater hats were made from plastic. Plastic John Kerry hats made the rounds at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. The style called to mind another democratic senator from Massachusetts — John F. Kennedy.

"A lot of the stuff that might seem happenstance really is much more planned," said Harry. "Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes no one notices."

Doodad budgets have decreased, he said. Supporters want tangible measurements of their dollars, easier done with a cable TV ad than a tie tack.

"You don't see these large displays in the campaign headquarters of funny candy cigars and, you know, paperweights and dolls, whether it's Goldwater cans or Johnson juice."

Now, a lot of paraphernalia comes from individual delegates who fashion wild salmon on their heads or post "Drill, Baby, Drill" on their chests. The more outlandish they look, the more likely reporters and photographers are to approach. And being heard is always the goal.

"I know there's a lot of talk about how conventions don't really matter anymore and they're not really deciding the candidate," said Harry. "But all of that aside, they're important for the political parties, and they do reflect an essential part of the democratic process. That's what democracy is all about."

• • •

In the beating sun in front of a minimart, Hakim Aquil manned the corner of Columbus Drive and North Boulevard. It was some miles from the glitzy arena of the RNC.

Hakim has sold clothes under a metal fixture on this corner for almost 30 years. He started with jeans, but those were warm in Florida, so he moved to sundresses. Sometimes he sells Barack Obama shirts, printed by friends in the neighborhood.

Once when Obama came to Tampa, Hakim headed into the action and sold shirts for $10. No one asked about permits, he said. He plans to stay out of the RNC fray. No one has asked him to sell Mitt Romney shirts.

"I doubt if any person around here would come and want to buy a Romney shirt," he said. "In fact, I'd have some explaining to do."

Hakim walked to his van and pulled out a worn pillowcase sagging at the bottom. These are what he planned to unleash after the convention leaves, when he figures his customers will be in the market for them.

"Five dollars each," he said. "Three for $10 if I like you."

Obama buttons.

Stephanie Hayes can be reached at shayes@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8857. Follow her on Twitter at @stephhayes.

Bearers of political campaign bling all want one thing: to be heard 08/10/12 [Last modified: Friday, August 10, 2012 3:52pm]

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