TAMPA — From afar, the life of a Republican National Convention delegate seems charmed.
Feted by corporations. Stationed at an upscale hotel. Overwhelmed by bags of goodies, buffets of food and bottles of booze.
But it's not all free.
In fact, attending the quadrennial political event can cost thousands of dollars, once you add in airfare, hotel and a variety of other expenses.
"It can be quite a challenge coming here," said John Laurie, a 36-year-old delegate from Arizona. "What most people don't realize is that we pay to come here, it's not free."
Laurie estimates he will spend $3,500 in his week at the RNC, hardly chump change for the firefighter and part-time student. He said he's able to afford it by cutting out the number of times he goes out when he's back home in Gilbert. To help foot the bill, he is asking for contributions on Chipin.com, an online personal fundraising site, which so far has netted about $800, he said.
"I'm just an average person who wants to be here," Laurie said. "I definitely don't fit in with the establishment of the party. They all know each other and can easily afford paying $300 a night for a hotel. It's harder for people like me."
Expenses for attending the convention typically range between $500 to $4,000, according to a survey of two dozen delegates. The brunt of that is from the hotel and airfare.
Florida delegate John Giotis live in Clearwater Beach — so he doesn't have to have hotel or travel bills. But he still has to pay $300 for breakfasts and lunches, plus bus travel and entrance into the Tampa Bay Times Forum. Delegates also get treated to concerts, such as country singer Trace Adkins for the Florida delegates, and outings to various tourist destinations.
Some delegates will spend way more, but they also can afford it.
Take Joe McNulty, a 58-year-old delegate from Mississippi who says it has cost him $15,000 to attend this year's RNC.
Why so much? McNulty is counting how much it cost him to fly his personal jet to Tampa. Subtract that out, and the cost is more like $4,000, he said.
If Laurie belongs to the grassroots class of delegates, McNulty belongs to the donor class. The owner of seven small hospitals, McNulty said he's contributed more than $50,000 in the last year to GOP campaigns. He helped fly a state lawmaker aboard his jet, though he wouldn't say whom.
He said the cost isn't prohibitive for him. But he has heard from several lawmakers in Mississippi who said they would go if they could afford to.
"They said it was just too expensive," McNulty said.
For those who do splurge, and don't have as much money as McNulty, strategies help.
Phyllis Fletcher, a delegate from Oregon, is a retiree who treats the RNC as if it were a vacation. She said she'll end up paying about $3,000.
Foster Lowe, a 66-year-old delegate from New Jersey, said he'll pay much less, about $1,000. The reason: He's using his Spirit miles for the trip, so he basically didn't pay to fly.
Ted McKissick, a 68-year-old Texas delegate, said he's staying at the fancy Saddlebrook Resort in Pasco County, but he's splitting the room cost with three other delegates, so he only is paying $80 a night.
"It's a bucket list thing for me," McKissick said, who thinks he'll end up paying $1,500 to attend. "I get to have a say in who was nominated. It's worth it."
But he acknowledged that not everyone has the luxury to go the bash. He was able to pay for it with his pension from serving as a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army.
"In this economy, not too many other people from Texas could afford this," he said.
One cost that most of the delegates didn't complain about — and might go along way in explaining the dearth of diners at local restaurants — is food. Aside from the breakfasts and lunches included with the $300 GOP pass, food has largely been free and plentiful.
"I don't think a lot of us have gone out to eat," Lowe said. "We're getting plenty of food provided for us."