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RNC delegates packing in fun times before the storm

Whoever coined the phrase the "calm before the storm" was never part of a convention delegation.

From hitting the beach to spotting wild animals at Busch Gardens to even partying with a spot of Kentucky bourbon, Republican National Convention delegates were anything but calm as they relished their freedom on Sunday.

The threat of Tropical Storm Isaac may have disrupted Monday morning's convention kick-off and forced delegates to make indoor plans for Monday. But that was only more reason to pack in the fun Sunday.

With bluegrass and Caribbean music in the background, delegates clad in T-shirts and shorts enjoyed brunch Sunday morning on the first-floor deck of the Wyndham Gardens on Clearwater Beach. The hotel stocked up on premium Kentucky bourbon in preparation for the party.

"Bluegrass and bourbon. What more could you ask for?" said Nigel Duffett, the Wyndham Gardens' general manager.

Duffett said the hotel and delegation only found out about 12 hours ago that Monday's kickoff of the RNC was cancelled, so his staff was meeting with the delegation staff to make indoor plans for tomorrow and discuss catering and entertainment options.

Steve Robertson, chairman of the Republican Party of Kentucky, said about 200 Kentucky visitors were expected, including 45 delegates, 42 alternates and their guests. As of Sunday morning, about 40 to 50 percent of the delegation had arrived.

The storm is "somewhere out there, but we'll ride it through and business will go on as planned," Robertson said. "If we have more together time as a delegation Monday, we'll make use of it."

At the Saddlebrook Resort in Wesley Chapel, delegates from Louisiana and Texas were likewise relishing the good weather, and not fixated on what the next couple days may bring.

"A lot of people are trying to go to the beach before weather hits," said delegate Michael Wolfe, 35, of Houston.

Wolfe, a school board member in Harris County, said this is his third presidential convention. And he's packing a lot in a short time. He already spent time at Downtown Disney plus visited Clearwater Beach.

Jim Allen an alternate delegate from Shreveport, enjoyed seeing the animals at Busch Gardens and said he couldn't wait to go fishing in one of the ponds at Saddlebrook. No need to fret; he had rain gear. "Let it rain," he said.

Members of the Texas delegation were easy to spot. Just look for the cowboy hats and shirts that looked like the Texas state flag.

Some passersby at the resort posed in front of a 72-inch by 90-inch "Texans for Romney" quilt made by Christine Heimberger.

The flag, complete with Texas blue bonnets as part of the fabric, is a gift intended for the Romneys. Heimberger, who hails from Humble, Texas, has a sister who has lived in Tampa for 12 years, so she made back-up plans to hang out with her family if the weather turns poor.

Saddlebrook general manager Pat Ciaccio, meanwhile, played host to the two delegations from neighboring states, which have been housed together at previous conventions. "They play well together," he said.

There were relatively few cancellations as the storm threat arose, Ciaccio said. Saddlebrook's location some 30 miles inland was certainly a plus. "Other than taking down our umbrellas, we're fine," he said.

A rainy Monday is expected to be a boon for "The Last Chance Saloon" and several other sports bars on the grounds catering to the roughly 1,000 delegates at Saddlebrook.

Elsewhere, delegates were making some diverse plans to deal with inclement weather.

Elaine Henderson, 73, an antique dealer and New Mexico alternate delegate from Albuquerque, will be shopping for deals. "It's always warm and dry in antique shops," she said.

Sean Conway, chairman of the Colorado delegation, said his group would come back to their hotel at the Holiday Inn/Clearwater St. Petersburg Airport after a morning fundraiser and play games. In their version of Pin the Tail on the Donkey, he said, you add one trillion dollars in debt if you win.

At the TradeWinds Island Resorts on St. Pete Beach, more than 90 percent of the huge California delegation had checked in as of Sunday, said Mitch Zak, the delegation's media coordinator.

Many of the anticipated 800 — 172 delegates, 169 alternate and more than 400 guests and VIPs — had arrived by Friday to get a jump start in enjoying themselves. While partying, however, they kept one eyed glue to shifting weather and convention plans. "We've been watching a lot of news, that's for sure," Zak said.

The California group was playing it cautious. It rejiggered a Tuesday brunch with Speaker of the House John Boehner and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that was supposed to be in tents at the Sandpearl Resort in Clearwater; instead, the brunch will likely be moved to the Tradewinds.

By mid-Sunday afternoon, as a drizzling rain settled at the Sirata Beach Resort on Clearwater Beach, the mood was subdued. Many in the New Jersey delegation there had retired to their rooms to relax before a dinnertime speech from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

Christie's speech was originally going to be on the beach, but organizers moved it inside to the ballroom to stay dry.

The impending storm impacted some delegates' plans in unexpected ways.

As Isaac's course shifted west toward possible landfall in Mississippi, that was bittersweet news for Mississippi alternate delegate Leonard Bentz, who was staying at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Tampa.

Bentz, who is also chairman of the Mississippi Public Service Commission, cut his Tampa stay short and was preparing to drive back to his hometown of Biloxi with his wife, Amber, and mother, Gayle.

As head of the PSC, Bentz oversees how that state's utilities handle what's expected to grow into a Category 2 hurricane. On a personal level, as well, he was in a rush to get back to Biloxi.

"I didn't even get to prepare at home," he said. "I have to go and get my home straight."

RNC delegates packing in fun times before the storm 08/26/12 [Last modified: Sunday, August 26, 2012 4:57pm]
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