The Grand Old Party threw a hurricane party Sunday night at Tropicana Field as thousands of slightly damp delegates, media and guests boogied to the oldies and goggled at Busch Gardens' gators and flamingos.
Despite intermittent rain from Tropical Storm Isaac, which had prompted a postponement of today's Republican National Convention schedule, the Trop gathering brought the GOP faithful from around the country together in one spot for the first time — to chat, snap photos, make plans, and of course chow down on paella and other local cuisine.
Wyoming delegate Jack Mueller, 70, has been to 14 straight GOP conventions. He called the Trop party "fabulous" and said he liked the fact that everyone was all together instead of having the states' delegations gathering in different places. His one complaint: "I ate too much."
The Trop attendees included men in red, white and-blue cowboy boots and women with blue-dyed hair mingling with bead-tossing Gasparilla krewes, who had a little trouble explaining Gasparilla to the out-of-towners.
Busch Gardens contributed belly dancers, drummers and acrobats, plus a pair of baby alligators, a trio of flamingos named Pinky, Mango and Beaker and an eagle named Kamali. Henry Schwab, a Georgia delegate, wore a straw boater decorated with political pins dating to "I Like Ike." In contrast to the grinning Schwab, a few grim-faced delegates wore "Todd Akin for Senate" buttons.
Tampa Bay Host Committee president Ken Jones had expected about 10,000 to 15,000 attendees. St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster said 15,000 attended, but deputies on the scene estimated 8,000 to 10,000 showed up — an average night for the Trop's usual occupants. Organizers brought in ponchos and umbrellas for guests in anticipation of weather from Isaac.
Floridians weren't fazed by the storm. "There have been so many hurricanes we've had to deal with, we don't care," said Lucy Dowie of Tampa, a volunteer with the host committee.
But the real targets for this party were the out-of-towners, Jones said.
"These people will see what Tampa Bay is all about. This convention is a great advertisement for the Tampa Bay area. We want them to really see Tampa Bay — see the Rays, eat Cuban food. We want them to come back and spend money," Jones said.
Instead of baseball scores, the Jumbotron flashed random Tampa Bay facts — about Winter the dolphin being cared for in Clearwater, about how Pinellas is the most densely populated county in Florida. The facts were also printed on cards taped above the men's room urinals.
Some of the GOP's biggest names weren't at the Trop celebration. Karl Rove, former Sen. Connie Mack and his son, U.S. Senate candidate Connie Mack IV, were at a private party in St. Petersburg that also featured actor Jon Voight, according to several attendees of both events.
Others, including Jones, Tampa developer Al Austin and real estate magnate Dick Beard, were in the Hancock Bank Club suite high above where the main festivities took place on the field. Austin, who was instrumental in persuading the party to hold its convention in Tampa, said he'd been sure Tampa would avoid being hammered by Isaac.
Hurricanes have "been an issue every time we've gone after a convention," he said. "But I think our luck is still holding." He declared the Trop party "everything we hoped it would be."
Not all the guests were thrilled with what they had seen so far, though.
"I wouldn't have chosen Tampa in August," said Dr. John Mazur, a retired neurosurgeon from Geneva, Ill., who was attending as a guest, not a delegate. "Maybe in September or October." He predicted that on Monday "we're all going to kind of be stuck in our hotels I suspect." Overall, he judged the Tampa Bay area to be a nice place, but "it's a long ride. The hotels are spread out and we've got to live with it."
Lydia Beeber, a delegate from San Francisco staying with California delegates at the Tradewinds Resort on St. Pete Beach, said they would "probably watch movies in the room" on Monday.
Overall, Foster praised the host committee for putting on a successful event despite hurdles from both the weather and the logistics of converting the Trop into a gigantic nightclub. "In spite of everything we've demonstrated great hospitality," he said. "We've pulled off the transformation of a baseball stadium into an entertainment venue."
The Tampa Bay Host Committee, which organized the event, had only 20 hours after the last Tampa Bay Rays game to transform the baseball stadium into a party zone for up to 20,000 invited guests.
Two Kabuki screens were draped on the third base line, and two on the first base side. A couple of hundred tables with chairs were set up, mainly in the outfield. A main stage for entertainment was flanked by four others for sound and lighting.
Guests at the party dined at about 50 food stations themed red, white and blue. The "red" selections were Cuban — 1905 Salad, Cuban sandwiches and paella. The "blue" foods included lobster macaroni and cheese, grouper sliders and ceviche. The "white" food area was "Artistic American," featuring barbecue nachos and chicken with salsa.
Tampa Bay Rays cheerleaders danced atop a platform surrounded by bunting. Shannon Magrane, the teenage American Idol contestant from Tampa, belted out Etta James hits. Later, the University of South Florida's marching band played and Gov. Rick Scott's voice welcomed the partygoers and praised developer Bill Edwards for making the night possible.
The conviviality inside the Trop was in marked contrast to the lonely landscape outside. The empty parking lot was surrounded by concrete barricades and chain-link fences topped with barbed wire. Khaki-uniformed officers stood guard, while a squadron of bicycling officers pedaled around the perimeter. A protest march ended peacefully after about 45 minutes.
St. Petersburg City Council member Leslie Curran said that for a few hours all eyes were on St. Petersburg: "Even though the convention focuses on the Tampa Bay area, it got its start in St. Pete."
Times staff writers Stephen Nohlgren, Mary Jane Park, Stephanie Hayes and Sean Daly contributed to this report. Craig Pittman can be reached at [email protected]
A BRIEF OPEN: Today, RNC chairman Reince Priebus will gavel the session to order, but the convention will break after a few minutes. A national debt clock also will be unveiled.
SQUEEZE TIME: Most of today's speakers will be absorbed into the next three days. Some will have shorter times at the podium; others, like Gov. Rick Scott, have given up their speaking slots.
not as loud:
Aware of appearing insensitive if they are partying while a Category 2 hurricane is threatening New Orleans or the Panhandle, planners are considering a less celebratory mood.