ST. PETERSBURG — If Tampa can't land the 2012 Republican convention, it's hard to see how it ever will get one.
Area boosters have been through the application process twice before and by all accounts wowed Republican National Committee officials who on Tuesday finished a two-day tour of the area.
"You do have a wonderful city that can accommodate a bigger convention than we've ever had before," gushed RNC site selection committee chairman Holly Hughes, a Michigan resident who attended Florida State University and graduated from high school in Naples.
The area has far more to offer in hotel rooms, museums and other amenities than when Tampa narrowly lost bids for the 2004 and 2008 conventions. And the competition is not as stiff as when post-9/11 New York City was tapped for 2004 and Minneapolis-St. Paul for 2008 when the Midwest was viewed as the critical battleground.
The other finalists? Phoenix, one of few places on earth hotter than Florida in August; and Salt Lake City, a city sure to cast a big spotlight on Mormonism when Mitt Romney is expected to be running for president. In terms of must-win battlegrounds, neither Utah nor Arizona is in the same league as Florida.
"I want what's best for the Republican Party, and I believe we will get it because we deserve it," said Tampa developer Al Austin, a veteran GOP fundraiser who has led the charge for a Tampa convention for years.
The site selection committee, which has yet to visit Salt Lake City and heaped praise on Phoenix during a visit last week, is expected to vote on a recommendation by late spring and the full Republican National Committee will formally name the host city in July. The event is scheduled for the week of Aug. 27, 2012.
Organizers describe a national party convention as the biggest media event in the world outside of the Olympics, drawing about 15,000 journalists and roughly 40,000 people overall.
Unlike prior years, the host committee is seeking no funding from strapped local governments. Instead, the budget calls for $40 million raised privately from the bipartisan host committee, a grant of about $18 million to the RNC from the Federal Election Commission, and $50 million appropriated from Congress for security.
"It is truly a unified effort to make sure we get this convention, not only for Tampa Bay but all of Florida," Gov. Charlie Crist said, joining the site selection committee at a press conference at the Renaissance Vinoy Resort in St. Petersburg on Tuesday.
Hughes said the most important criteria are a community's commitment "to get the job done," security, hotel rooms, adequate venues and "the delegate experience."
The last time Tampa bid for the convention, it included Orlando hotel rooms in its inventory of available beds. But roughly 2,000 hotel rooms have been added since then, so every hotel room is within roughly 35 minutes of downtown Tampa.
Hughes praised Tampa police Chief Jane Castor for fully understanding the security issues and demands of such a convention and having a solid plan in place.
Local organizers said that Tampa should have a leg up on the others when it comes to activities available to delegates during the day — from beaches, to Busch Gardens and Disney, to a host of new museums.
"I feel very good about it," said host committee co-chairman Dick Beard. "There were no negative comments at all, no push-back on anything."
Tampa businessman Ken Jones, one of the co-chairs of the host committee, said he felt great about the site selection's tour of the Tampa Bay area.
"I've seen these site visits from the inside and from the outside, and Tampa Bay knocked it out of the park," said Jones, who served as general counsel to the 2008 convention and worked at the RNC.
Committee members had presentations on everything from security to political trends in Tampa Bay and the weather. Hughes noted she was assured when she learned no hurricane had hit the Tampa Bay area since 1921. (Knock on wood.)
The convention would be held at the St. Pete Times Forum, with the media headquarters in the nearby convention center. On Tuesday, the group also toured Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, which could be an option if the party wanted a bigger venue the night of the nomination.
Local organizers held a dragon boat race for the visitors, featuring canoe-style boats labeled Salt Lake City, Phoenix and Tampa Bay. Guess which one won.
Adam Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.