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Facing PR challenges, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn just smiles

The advocate

TAMPA — It's 5:45 a.m. Monday, and even as Tropical Storm Isaac drenches the city, closing schools, Busch Gardens and the Republican National Convention, it's good to be the mayor of Tampa.

"Top of the morning," says Bob Buckhorn, a lover of all things Irish, as he walks briskly into a makeshift CNN studio. It's pouring outside, but the mayor, as usual, is nattily turned out: pressed medium blue suit, kelly green tie, a line of crisp white handkerchief in his breast pocket.

He got to sleep near midnight and was up at 4, but it's clear Buckhorn is in his element. A CNN staffer seeks him out and mentions the mayor's brother, a photojournalist who covers the White House for the network.

"Keep him out of trouble," Buckhorn says.

That's something Buckhorn is trying to do for his city this week. For decades, Tampa has seen itself as being on the verge of moving up to the first tier of American cities. And for two years, it has viewed the RNC as its turn on a global stage.

But that was before Isaac forced the GOP to cancel Monday's proceedings, throwing a question mark over the week. Now the national media is booking interviews to ask Buckhorn: Was it right for the RNC to cancel? Can the city salvage its big chance?

Yes and yes, Buckhorn says.

"I think the opportunity to showcase the city in the next three days is available to us, and we intend to do it," he says.

Buckhorn, 54, embraces his role as the city's ambassador. For five hours Monday he raced from one studio to the next — CNN, Fox News, back to CNN, CNBC, Bloomberg News.

At Fox, he peppered the hosts with Tampa spring training trivia, then shook hands as he walked by Karl Rove, who slid into Buckhorn's seat. At CNN, he waited for his interview with Soledad O'Brien while Newt Gingrich munched on a muffin a few feet away.

Meanwhile, he got a briefing on the weather, chatted up city employees at a high-tech operations center and, from the passenger seat of a black sport utility vehicle with a police driver, checked out a few dozen protesters gathering for what is expected to be the biggest march of the day.

"Doesn't look like too much of a crowd," he said, not unhappy.

Today, Buckhorn will take the stage at the Tampa Bay Times Forum as, he likes to say, the only Democrat to speak to the Republican National Convention.

In the three minutes he's allotted, he will welcome delegates. Thank them for choosing Tampa. Invite them back. And try to sell his city as a place to invest their money and expand their businesses.

"For the purposes of this, I am agnostic," he said Monday. "We want to be the best host city the RNC has ever had, and I want to be their favorite mayor."

It's reasonable for city leaders to worry that Isaac has robbed them of their moment — or could, if it slams into New Orleans, said Juan-Carlos Molleda, professor of public relations at the University of Florida.

But so far, Molleda said Buckhorn appears to have taken the right steps: He's telling people what the city is doing and is emphasizing how the city's preparation for the convention is similar to preparing for a hurricane. He's consistent and confident in his message and realistic in his tone.

"He knows really well that his job is to be sure that the city of Tampa is a good host, despite the circumstances," Molleda said.

It helps that Buckhorn tends not to dwell on setbacks. There were a couple, even before Monday's RNC sessions were cancelled.

This spring, Buckhorn asked Gov. Rick Scott to ban concealed weapons in an area where the city expected RNC protesters. It's something Tampa couldn't do itself because the Florida Legislature last year prohibited cities and counties from passing any laws of their own on guns or ammunition.

Scott, a Republican, rejected the city's request, telling Buckhorn a sweeping ban on gun possession during the convention would disarm responsible gun owners and violate the Second Amendment.

Buckhorn still thinks it's "absurd" that the city can ban water pistols but not Glocks carried with a concealed weapons permit. But he doesn't go out of his way to criticize Scott.

On the state's response to Isaac, he told a reporter Monday that the governor is "doing fine" and has "been very helpful to us," but he didn't volunteer any general praise.

Last week, with Isaac's projected path heading toward Tampa, Buckhorn was asked whether local authorities would be prepared to call off the convention's proceedings if a storm threatened on a particular night.

His response — "Absolutely, we're prepared to call it off" — generated a days' worth of headlines and raised some eyebrows at the RNC. (Buckhorn, a staunch Democrat, supports President Obama and will be a delegate at next month's Democratic National Convention.) Buckhorn said he and convention CEO William Harris talked that day, not specifically about the CNN interview but "just to make sure that we were all on the same page."

Buckhorn's remark was an uncharacteristic gaffe, especially since he knew better. For months beforehand, he consistently said his responsibility was to handle the city's response to any hurricane, while the GOP would control the RNC's schedule.

Typically, Buckhorn is a stickler for staying on message. This week, that means talking up the Tampa Bay area and reminding his guests that the city has streamlined its bureaucracy to make it easier to open or expand a business, regardless of anyone's party affiliation.

"This is not a partisan event for Tampa," he told a Bloomberg interviewer. "This is an economic development opportunity. This is our coming-out party."

Still, even a politician as practiced as Buckhorn can be brought up short sometimes.

Around 6:45 a.m. Monday, after leaving Fox News, he got a briefing on the rest of the day while riding to the next interview. There were some major cable networks and some local media, but also Inside Edition.

"Inside Edition?" Buckhorn asked.

"Pop culture," Ali Glisson, the mayor's spokeswoman, said from the back seat of the SUV.

"I'm toast," he said.

Looking up from her phone, Glisson said, "Snooki had her baby, mayor."

"Who's Snooki?"

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Richard Danielson can be reached at or (813) 226-3403.

Facing PR challenges, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn just smiles 08/27/12 [Last modified: Monday, August 27, 2012 11:38pm]
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