TAMPA — To land a really big catch, sometimes you want a really big boat.
Take the Cracker Bay, a gleaming white yacht half the length of a football field.
Owned by Gary Morse, developer of the Villages, it has an impressive art collection and can seat 30 for dinner.
In June, the Cracker Bay tied up at the Tampa Convention Center so the 2012 Tampa Bay Host Committee could go fishing for some of the $55 million it's raising for next year's Republican National Convention.
Two shipboard events drew a political who's who wearing everything from Tommy Bahama shirts to coats and ties. The pinot grigio was perfectly chilled, and the hors d'oeuvres included a fresh tomato appetizer, hearty mini pizzas and intricate salmon morsels.
"It was hard to believe it was on water," said host committee member Maryann Ferenc, who owns the Tampa restaurant Mise en Place.
However relaxing the atmosphere, the goal couldn't have been more challenging — raise an average of a million dollars a week, for a year. And do it in a lousy economy, in a community with few major corporations and little experience on vast fundraising projects.
As of today, with the convention exactly a year away, the host committee has raised about $15 million, some in cash, some in donations mainly of telecommunications and technology.
Host committee members say they are on schedule. But three or four months ago, they realized some of their expectations were "too optimistic," chairman Al Austin said. They thought they could raise more in some cases, but a few calls convinced them they would have to accept less.
As a result, now they're reaching out to a broader range of individuals, companies, family foundations and others.
"It just takes more effort to get to the goal that we have set for ourselves," Austin said.
"It's going very well, given the fact that we've started so early," co-chairman Dick Beard said. "In my view it's a heavy lift. Given that the economy seems to be getting worse instead of better, it's not going to be easy."
The economy isn't the only challenge:
• Unlike St. Paul, Minn., host of the 2008 GOP convention and home of nearly 20 Fortune 500 companies, Tampa Bay doesn't have a deep bench of major corporation headquarters.
• With no Florida conventions since 1972, many in-state donors aren't in the habit of writing checks for conventions in their back yards.
• Money doesn't always roll in on schedule. In 2008, the Denver and St. Paul host committees each were $10 million or more short just weeks before the events. They closed the gaps only after Barack Obama's campaign and one of John McCain's top fundraisers urged their donors to give to the host committees.
The Tampa Bay Host Committee is taking action: hiring a national fundraiser with convention experience; tapping the networks of well-connected members; crafting its pitches to cross party lines.
This is the biggest nonsports media event in the world, organizers tell potential corporate sponsors. Great exposure for your brand.
Closer to home, the host committee touts the convention's potential to showcase both Tampa Bay and Florida.
"A golden opportunity," said Austin, with CEOs from 49 states converging here for a week. "The Tampa Bay area is one of the best-kept secrets in the world, but after this convention it won't be a secret anymore."
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At stake is the success of the convention itself.
"The most important player up until the day the convention starts is the host committee," said veteran Republican fundraiser Ann Herberger, who has raised money for prior GOP conventions.
"If they don't get their money raised, the convention is not going to happen," she said. "Or, at least, not in the way it should happen.''
While the host committee is raising $55 million, the city of Tampa is waiting on a federal allocation for another $55 million to cover its security costs. Plus, the Federal Election Commission grants each party about $18 million for conventions.
Formed in the spring of 2010, the host committee includes business executives from both parties and both sides of Tampa Bay. The committee is a 501(c)3 charity, making donations tax-deductible.
That also means it must steer clear of overt politicking.
"We're here to promote the bay area," host committee president Ken Jones said. "They say, 'Well, who's your candidate?' We don't have a candidate. Our candidate is Tampa Bay."
As a result, a longtime Republican activist and fundraiser like Austin has to remain neutral in the primary while he raises money for the host committee.
Meanwhile, another top GOP fundraiser in Tampa Bay, developer Mel Sembler, is doing little money-raising for the convention because he's actively helping candidate Mitt Romney.
"It's a tough market place, but I think they're doing fine and meeting their goals,'' said Sembler, who is advising the host committee's main fundraisers.
Former Florida Gov. Bob Martinez describes himself as an "emeritus" member of the host committee, but is working to put fundraisers in touch with good prospects.
"When we have our meetings, we put more names in the pile," Martinez said. "Who knows somebody here? Or do you know someone who may know someone there?"
While host committee members work their networks for leads, Jones typically makes the pitch. The Tampa businessman and private equity executive has worked on two prior GOP conventions and knows the intricacies of campaign finance laws. If a committee member has a good relationship with a prospect, he or she will go, too.
"There's a lot of uncertainty out there," Jones said. "And so where maybe you had one meeting in the past to get a contribution, maybe you've got to go have two meetings, or maybe three."
Florida Gov. Rick Scott has made some calls on behalf of the host committee and said prospective donors are receptive.
"It's a significant economic opportunity," he said. "The biggest benefit is that it highlights Florida."
And organizers have had some good weeks. While the committee does not have to release any donor information until October 2012, Jones said two Tampa Bay residents he would not name are already in for seven figures, and one national corporation with a local presence has committed about $5 million.
For others, it's still early. Progress Energy, Tampa Electric and Publix are among those that have been approached but haven't made a decision.
One big local public company, Raymond James Financial, said Friday it has decided not to contribute to the host committee.
"As a matter of policy the firm itself doesn't participate in political funding which might be construed as party-oriented," chairman Tom James said in a statement.
"We encourage employees to be involved individually and occasionally provide some functions in which associates can meet members of both parties," said James, who himself is a member of the host committee, although in what the company said was a personal capacity.
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While the Tampa Bay area doesn't have many corporations headquartered here, other parts of Florida do.
"We're approaching it more as a Florida convention as opposed to a Tampa Bay convention," Beard said.
To reach outside of Florida and into corporate boardrooms, the host committee hired Andrew McKenna, a national fundraiser based in Arlington, Va.
A former college lacrosse player who flies a restored World War II warplane, McKenna was deputy political director in Delaware for George W. Bush's 2000 presidential campaign. He received a presidential appointment to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and went to work for a group that raised more than $40 million in support of Bush's re-election.
"If Andrew can't raise the money, I don't know who could," Ferenc said. "He's, like, out of a damn movie. . . . Driven as can be. This is a tough market. You've got to bring somebody on who is not afraid."
Overall, the host committee expects to raise 45 percent of its contributions inside Florida.
That's an ambitious goal, considering the findings of the nonprofit, nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute.
In 2008, it found, the St. Paul host committee raised 87 percent from donors who gave $250,000 or more. More than half of that came from donors who gave $1 million to $3 million.
And despite St. Paul's hometown advantage with big corporations — Target, 3M, Best Buy and General Mills among them — only about a third of its big-money, six-figure donors came from inside Minnesota.
Retired insurance executive Doug Leatherdale chaired the St. Paul host committee in 2008 and said the pitch was often about civic pride.
"We canvassed pretty thoroughly the Twin Cities community, where we're fortunate to have a number of Fortune 500 companies and the community has a strong history of philanthropy,'' Leatherdale said. "The first $20 (million) to $25 million actually came pretty fast and that was largely because of the local support."
After that they cast a wider net to national corporations who routinely sponsor conventions. In 2008, nearly 70 corporations, including Verizon, Microsoft and Cisco Systems, gave six- or seven-figure contributions to both conventions.
The third major source of funds, Leatherdale said, was individual major Republican donors across the country.
Once all the bills were paid, the host committee wound up with about $8 million left over that was required to go toward charitable causes.
"We as a committee were suddenly very popular with a lot of people with all this extra money to give away,'' he said.
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The St. Paul experience suggests, even with a sputtering economy, the Tampa Bay host committee has reason to be confident.
"These committees always seem to do just fine, thank you, and the money only goes in one direction — up, up, up," said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics.
Consider: This is a time of robust corporate profits, and many major corporations are sitting on huge cash reserves.
Austin notes that Florida has a lot of well-to-do residents, but many leave the state during the summer. After Labor Day, he expects the pace of fundraising to accelerate.
Count on it, predicted Steve Farber, a Denver lawyer and key host-committee fundraiser for that city's Democratic convention in 2008.
"There's a rhythm," he said. "Come November, December, they'll be hitting full stride."