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Published Oct. 8, 2005

You might think that Jeff Pasch's experience in Las Vegas last week would sour anyone on casino gambling.

Before he sat down at the blackjack tables, Pasch was leaning against the plan to let 47 casinos into Florida.

Then the Tampa business owner started playing. He won hand after hand, raking in winnings of $1,200 _ until the cards started coming up bad.

Eventually, he lost all $1,200 and a couple hundred more.

But a funny thing happened as all that money slipped through Pasch's fingers. He changed his mind about the casino amendment that will appear on the Florida ballot Nov. 8. Now he supports it.

That was exactly what Proposition for Limited Casinos hoped would happen. The group, which is trying to get Floridians to vote in favor of casino gambling, flew more than 150 business owners and "opinion leaders" to the world capital of gambling.

The mission: make the best possible case for casino gambling in Florida.

They did it two ways. First, the Floridians were taken to dazzling shows and the most opulent, inventive and profitable casino-hotels in the city. They listened and asked questions of speakers who included Nevada's attorney general and Eric M. Hilton, vice chairman of Hilton Hotels Corp.

For Pasch, the discussions were persuasive. People told him that casinos won't hurt the restaurant industry, an important concern of his, and assured him that casinos don't breed crime like people say.

"I'm thinking that I'm for it at this point," Pasch said, after the plane returned to Orlando.

With less than three weeks left until the election, the Limited Casinos group wanted to invite people who could help sway opinion to its side.

So the group made an invitation list, chartered a plane and offered to pay the $395 cost of air fare, rooms and food for the Tuesday-through-Thursday trip. (Some attendees, including the Times, paid their own way.)

Those attending included: Jeanie Austin, co-chairwoman of the Republican National Committee; Phil Henderson, chairman of the Greater Clearwater Chamber of Commerce; a top official of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Florida; the director of public affairs at the St. Petersburg Kennel Club (which operates Derby Lane); the branch president of the West Palm Beach NAACP; the president of the Florida AFL-CIO; Midge Trubey, owner of a St. Petersburg catering company and president of the Pinellas Chapter of the Florida Restaurant Association; and several others, including many from the Tampa Bay area.

The media went, too, including a reporter and camera operator from WTVT-Ch. 13, and Roland Manteiga, editor of the Tampa weekly newspaper La Gaceta.

Among those who declined the invitation: Dr. Henry Lyons of St. Petersburg, president of the National Baptist Convention USA; and T. H. Poole, president of the Florida NAACP.

Part of the game plan was to show visitors the new wave of casinos in Las Vegas. As the tours proved, the biggest, newest gambling houses have gone Disney. Imagine the Magic Kingdom with slot machines instead of lines, and you've got it.

The Florida delegation stood outside a casino called Treasure Island and watched while a giant pirate ship replica fired a cannon and sank a British frigate in a makeshift sea. Cannons boomed, flames reached to the sky and seamen plunged off the masts into the water.

At the Mirage, the Floridians inspected a dolphin habitat and met an animal care specialist named Carrie Caignet who happened to be from St. Petersburg. They also watched magicians Siegfried and Roy put on an extravagant, high-tech magic show, complete with a an enormous fire-breathing monster (artificial) and huge white tigers (real).

"I'm impressed with the number of things to do besides gaming," said Henderson, a member of Limited Casinos' statewide board.

The tour did not take the visitors to places such as the Riviera, a 2,200-room hotel and casino where the entertainment included "Crazy Girls," billed as "Las Vegas' Sexiest Topless Revue."

Nor did it include a visit to "local casinos," those that get their business not from tourists but from people who live nearby. That's an issue, because opponents believe casinos will tempt Floridians into gambling away money that they don't have.

Pat Roberts, leader of Limited Casinos, said the topless shows are fading in Las Vegas but acknowledged that some casinos that come to Florida are likely to draw their business from locals and tourists.