PALM HARBOR — For Florida's delegates, the road to the Republican National Convention starts here: behind a small white guardhouse rimmed by begonias.
Over four days in August, the delegates will leave their rooms at the Innisbrook Resort, board charter buses and begin a long commute to downtown Tampa.
The Republican National Committee insists it wasn't punishing the Florida delegation by putting them so far away. People riding the bus might disagree.
On Tuesday, we took the trip the delegates will take: 32 miles across the top of Tampa Bay.
If the delegates follow our route, they won't see beaches or blue heron, palm trees or dolphins, anything to remind them of Florida's natural wonders.
They will see miles of strip malls and apartments, walk-in clinics and gun shops, and X-rated video stores.
Maybe delegates will ponder the many signs of issues being debated during this election. Maybe they will pine for that Starbucks off Tampa Road.
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We pulled out of Innisbrook at 8:44 a.m., leaving behind its 900 wooded acres, four championship golf courses, 18,000-square-foot spa, salon and fitness center, and 60 acres of lakes. Two minutes later, paradise was in our rearview mirror.
We turned south onto U.S. 19. Eight lanes of asphalt dissected an endless stream of commerce, something to satisfy every appetite: Flap-Jacks pancake house and LA Fitness, Florida Detox and the Super Vitamin Outlet, the Last Chance Thrift Store and the Fountain of Youth.
Within a mile, we had passed the first Walmart.
The intersection of U.S. 19 and Tampa Road is one of the area's busiest. The Florida Department of Transportation reports 75,000 vehicles cruise through here every day. We turned left, heading east into the sun.
Health care loomed large on both sides of the six lanes: East Lake Outpatient Center, West Coast Brace & Limb, Harbor Close Assisted Living. A funeral home offered quick cremation. Eastern Massage promoted alternative approaches to healing.
The sagging real estate market also was evident: empty buildings, "For Rent" placards, posters on telephone poles offering "Free Foreclosure Listings."
We didn't pass many houses. Mostly townhomes and apartments ringed by brick walls. Almost all of them advertised vacancies and move-in specials as low as $100. One banner said simply, "Welcome home."
Of course, there were the chains — everything you would expect: Cracker Barrel and Applebee's, FedEx and Walgreens, Home Depot, Target. Another Walmart.
The only open land was just over the Hillsborough County line, a single swath of scrubby forest on the south side of the road.
But bulldozers were busy there, tearing out pine trees.
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Tampa Road turns into Hillsborough Avenue, which runs into Memorial Highway, which leads to the interstate — where 141,000 vehicles merge on every day. Here, drivers speed away from suburbia and toward the Tampa skyline.
From the bus windows, Florida's delegates will see the airport and its Hilton, where Utah's delegates will stay. Then they'll pass the airport Marriott, where Missouri's delegates are booked.
Under the overpass, around the ramp, through downtown traffic, then the bus will head left at the Hyatt Regency. Mississippi and Wisconsin delegates staying there will be able to walk to the convention. The bus will turn right.
For Florida's delegates, the road to the Republican National Convention ends here.
At 9:29 a.m., exactly 45 minutes after leaving Innisbrook's guard gate, we saw the glass front of the Tampa Bay Times Forum. All that was between us and our destination was a field of empty parking lots.
Maybe the bus driver will decide to take the Courtney Campbell Parkway in August.
Lane DeGregory can be reached at [email protected]