A special report on the national political conventions / Part One
Let's be honest. There hasn't been an interesting national political convention since 1976. But at a minimum, this year's conventions will give us guns, strippers, a sexual harassment scandal and a traffic apocalypse. That's not bad.
There will be plenty to discover when the Republicans go to Tampa on Aug. 27 and the Democrats to Charlotte on Sept. 3 beyond the obvious conclusion: that both parties picked really humid places to visit during the summer.
Whether you're attending the conventions or following them from afar, here's what to watch for. This is your indispensable guide to the 2012 conventions.
Tampa / GOP conventionWelcome to the Wild West
Delegates will want to pack a few essentials for the convention in this bayside town sunscreen, a bathing suit and a sidearm. This promises to be the Wild West of political conventions: Participants are invited to pack heat.
Florida, like many Southern states, has a generous concealed-carry law, which means that if you look at the people on your right and your left, chances are they will be armed. For this reason, you might not want to look at the people on your right and your left, lest they think you are looking at them funny.
The Tampa City Council voted to ask Gov. Rick Scott to issue an executive order banning guns within the convention perimeter. But Scott, a Republican who was, er, gunning for a speaking role at the convention, shot down the idea. The only type of gun that will be banned from the perimeter is the dreaded Super Soaker because that's the only type of gun the City Council was allowed to ban.
The council did take the precaution of banning hatchets; there's always a lot of backstabbing at conventions, and that's one category of weapons the NRA isn't much worried about protecting. Where's the party?
The presence of so many guns at the convention might worry the Secret Service. Fortunately for them, Tampa has something that will keep the agents otherwise occupied: strip clubs. The area has 50, making flesh one of the most visible industries.
Readers will recall that Secret Service agents demonstrated their affection for this trade before President Barack Obama's recent visit to Colombia. Republicans have also demonstrated interest. Then-Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele got into trouble a couple of years ago when RNC officials attempted to expense a $2,000 bill from Voyeur in West Hollywood, a bondage-themed club where the performers simulate sex acts while suspended from nets.
It's not clear whether the Floridians are this advanced. But many of the Tampa strip clubs are said to be upgrading equipment, hiring dancers and creating, ahem, "private nooks." One place, Thee Dollhouse, reportedly spent $1 million to renovate and is bringing in a Sarah Palin impersonator. This could be the biggest event for the clubs since the 2009 Super Bowl, when some stayed open 24 hours. A Paul fest (or three)
The gadfly Rep. Ron Paul, perennial presidential candidate and darling of the tea party, retires after this year. This makes Tampa a last hurrah, of sorts, for this Texas obstetrician-libertarian who loves gold and hates the Fed.
There are, depending on how you count it, three separate events commemorating the good doctor on the eve of the convention.
The main one is a three-day Paul Festival hosted by the pro-Paul group Liberty Unleashed. It will have bands, performers, children's activities and speakers that amount to a "Who's Who of the Ron Paul Revolution." There will be Ron Paul chocolate bars and Ron Paul T-shirts. The only thing that won't be at the Paul Festival, in fact, is Ron Paul.
The congressman emailed supporters that he will not speak at the event, instead appearing at his own rally. "This event on Sunday, August 26th, at the University of South Florida's Sun Dome, will be the ONLY pre-Convention event at which I'll be speaking, so I hope to see you'll be able to make it," Paul wrote.
Unwilling to give up, the Paul Festival people announced they would have a "Ronvoy" and transport their participants to the other Paul event. Neither event should be confused with a third pro-Paul event in Tampa that weekend, the Freedom Festival hosted by a group called Liberty Avengers. Its goal, creating "a more unified liberty movement," would seem at odds with the splintering of Paul supporters into three factions.
If the competing Paul fests don't distract from what happens on the convention floor, Paul delegates could nominate their man for vice president. They are the majority in Iowa, Minnesota and Maine, and they could force a roll-call vote between Paul and Rep. Paul Ryan, the candidate Mitt Romney has selected. The risk of this goes up significantly if Paul doesn't get a plum speaking slot at the convention.
Think Paul's supporters won't really make a mess of GOP unity at the convention? Consider that 132 Paul delegates filed a federal lawsuit charging the RNC with trying to restrict their votes on the convention floor. The RNC called the suit "frivolous," which it is but frivolity is what conventions are all about. Please, Mother Nature
The GOP's biggest worry is not that Ron Paul's supporters will stir up a whirlwind on the convention floor, but that Mother Nature will stir up something bigger. The convention is scheduled right in the middle of hurricane season. Katrina hit Florida on Aug. 25, 2005, and Andrew arrived on Aug. 24, 1992.
There's only a 1-in-25 chance that Tampa will be hit by a hurricane in any given year, so the odds of one happening that week are quite small but still terrifying to organizers.
State workers have been planning for the possibility of a Category 3 storm and the mass evacuations that would be required with 50,000 visitors in town. If this happens, the convention is a washout: There isn't enough time before the election to have a rain date. Besides, Pat Robertson will say God sent the hurricane to punish Republicans. The hotheads
At any party, there is the risk that a guest will embarrass the host. At the Republican convention, there is a much greater risk that the host will embarrass the guests. In Tampa, the hosts have a whole host of troubles.
They begin with Rick Scott, the Republican governor. Only 40 percent of Floridians have a favorable view of the man. And convention organizers didn't know quite what to do with his insistence that he have a speaking role.
Asked about it, RNC Chairman Reince Preibus hemmed and hawed. "I mean, he's the hometown governor," Priebus said, according to the Tampa Bay Times. "I'm sure he's got, I'm sure he's got plenty, uh, you know, I'm sure there's a welcome, you know, there's a lot of protocol there, too, so I don't want to get into the details because I don't know what the answer to that is yet."
At press time, the Republicans had resigned themselves to giving Scott a platform but weren't making any promises on time of day.
Then there's the awkward matter of the former Florida Republican Party chairman, Jim Greer, who goes on trial in November on felony charges related to stealing $100,000 from the party. Greer plans to defend himself by airing the state party's dirty laundry. The judge granted Greer access to its records, making it likely that embarrassing revelations will remain in headlines.
Greer's wife, Lisa, has vowed that the trial "will serve as a day of reckoning for those who chose to protect their own corrupt political careers." She has said her husband's defense will hold accountable "current and former elected officials, political consultants and lobbyists who orchestrated a criminal case against him" to cover up "for their own actions."
Perhaps it's for the best that the convention organizers are keeping the Florida delegation far from the action: The host state's reps are being housed in Palm Harbor, 30 miles away. Suspicion is that the RNC is punishing the state party for moving up its primary to January, in violation of party rules. Florida gets only half its usual number of about 100 delegates. Hey, fat cats
The Republicans' big tent is quite an exclusive lean-to this year. There are no tickets for sale, and guaranteed entrance to the hall is limited to delegates, party officials and a limited number of media. But fear not, fat cats: There are many ways to buy your way into peripheral events.
Among the scores of lunches, dinners, golf outings and cocktail parties arranged by the party, lobbyists, party donors and corporate sponsors is a collection of concerts featuring Lynyrd Skynyrd, Kid Rock, Trace Adkins, Ronnie Dunn and others. According to Politico, sponsors opportunities start at just $10,000! Cheap! include Amway and Southern Co. As with all such conventions, the amount of access you get to lawmakers depends on how much you give.
Can't afford to buy your way in? Turn on C-SPAN and see if the platform committee does something interesting. Usually, policy differences are papered over, and the platform is just a collection of boilerplate. But this year could be different: The chairman of the platform committee is Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia, the man who made transvaginal ultrasound a part of the national dialogue.