Thirty miles south and six days from the start of the Republican National Convention, the throng of 60-somethings packed into a secluded first-floor office behind a CVS in Sun City Center.
The political volunteers, more than 100 strong, wore campaign buttons and American flag polos. Over cups of Diet Coke and platters of sugar cookies, they discussed plans for what was to come. The days ahead, a speaker told them, would be critically important. Signup sheets lined the wall: "Grassroots Planning Sessions." "Canvassing!!!" "Seniors for Obama."
That's right. Soon, tens of thousands of Republicans will descend upon Tampa Bay, but this area's Democrats say they aren't going anywhere. Their schedules are packed: protests, rallies, vigils, press conferences, a visit from the vice president and even a secret-but-not-so-secret "counter-convention."
"We don't want to ruin the convention for delegates," said Ella Coffee of the Hillsborough County Democratic Party, which opened its Tampa campaign office Thursday night. "We just want to be able to have a conversation."
Preparation for that conversation starts today with a protest training session in Tampa. The Code Pink-organized gathering, which many area Democrats are expected to attend, will teach people how to demonstrate without violence, talk to reporters and use social media. Attendees also will practice songs, chants and dance moves.
The education will prepare Democrats for daily protests that begin today in St. Petersburg and a march Sunday during the convention's kickoff party at Tropicana Field. Hillsborough Democrats also have promoted a bevy of events for the week, including a "celebration of resistance" on Monday night, a rally against voter suppression on Tuesday evening, and, on two days, the alliteratively named "Rally Against Romney."
Starting this weekend, the Democratic National Committee also will exert its influence on Tampa Bay with what organizers are calling a "counter-convention."
The movement, according to a press release, will be coordinated from a "war room just a short walk from the Republican convention in downtown Tampa." Democratic officials, who will host daily press events, have declined to name the site or the counter-convention's specific purpose.
On Friday, however, organizers revealed one tactic. Pickups — strapped with billboards slamming "Romney Economics" — will be dispatched around the area throughout the week.
Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz will be on hand to help kick things off.
Vice President Joe Biden had planned to visit Tampa on Monday to counter the GOP message. He postponed the trip Friday to ensure that all local law enforcement and emergency management resources can stay focused on Tropical Storm Isaac.
Meanwhile, in Hillsborough, Pinellas and elsewhere around Tampa Bay, many Democratic activists will continue to do what they've done for weeks: knock on doors, pass out fliers and, like the folks in Sun City Center, volunteer at meetings.
Most at Tuesday's gathering intended to stay as far away from Tampa as possible next week.
But Chris Radulich, a 64-year-old from Apollo Beach who says he likes the heat, planned to attend at least one rally or march every day of the convention.
"The primary thing is, first of all," he paused to consider the question, "to prove there are Democrats in Florida."
John Woodrow Cox can be reached at [email protected]