TAMPA — Tampa is once again a finalist for the Republican National Convention, competing for the honor this time against Salt Lake City and Phoenix.
"We're in the game. And we're practiced enough that now we're ready to take it to the big time — our Super Bowl — and win it," said Tampa developer Al Austin, who saw Tampa picked as a GOP convention finalist for 2008 and 2004, only to fall short.
For the 2012 convention, local boosters see a number of advantages over prior applications:
• Tampa is a more impressive city for visitors than it was in 2004, including a new art museum, history museum and spiffy riverfront park.
• The RNC has reduced its requirement for quality hotel rooms from at least 20,000 to 15,000.
• The competition is slimmer, Republicans say, because only a handful of cities opted to bid on the convention this time.
• Perhaps most important, Tampa knows the selection process better than anyone.
"I think Tampa's always been a strong contender. From what I understand in '08 it was between Tampa and Minneapolis-St. Paul," said Tampa businessman Ken Jones, who is working closely on Tampa's bid and served as general counsel to the Twin Cities' 2008 convention host committee.
A site selection committee from the Republican National Committee is expected to tour the area in April, and a final decision could come by early summer.
Private organizers say local taxpayers won't have to contribute a dime. The host committee expects the Department of Justice to provide the winning city with about $50 million for security expenses, and local organizers plan to raise $49 million in private, tax-deductible contributions.
"The last conversation I had with (RNC Chairman Michael Steele), he looked very favorably on Tampa," said Florida Republican Chairman Jim Greer. "The biggest issue is going to be raising the money."
Worry about hurricane season helped tip the selection to Minnesota four years ago, but Austin dismissed that. Convention dates are not set for 2012, but it will be in late August or early September.
"No one can control what the weather's going to be, but you look at the Tampa Bay area and it hasn't been hit by a hurricane in a long, long time," he said.
Austin added that summer temperatures in Phoenix can top 110 degrees and that if Mitt Romney is the 2012 Republican nominee, he probably would prefer not to have extra attention on the many fellow Mormons living around Salt Lake City. Some analysts think suspicion and misunderstanding about Mormonism hurt Romney's candidacy in 2008.
Utah is a solidly Republican state; Arizona is less so, while Florida is the biggest battleground state of all. That's another plus for Tampa's bid, though some Republican strategists quietly fret that a convention could funnel crucial money and energy away from actually winning elections in Florida.
Gov. Charlie Crist, though, is a believer. He cut a video hawking the benefits of the Tampa Bay area to the RNC.
"Tampa has a world-class facility in the St. Pete Times Forum, an ideal media center in the Tampa Convention Center, tremendous hotel capacity and a proven track record of safely and successfully hosting large-scale events like the Super Bowl," Crist says in the video. "I'm confident at the end of the day when every factor has been considered you'll come to Florida and Tampa Bay."
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected]