ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — One thing you can say about Republicans, they sure know how to throw a party. As Tropical Storm Isaac barreled down on Florida and protesters geared up to try and disrupt the proceedings, some 15,000 delegates, guests and journalists gathered Sunday night at Tropicana Field, home of baseball’s Tampa Bay Rays.
Not that it looked like a baseball diamond. In fact, it looked a bit like Las Vegas, minus the blackjack tables. Pink flamingos wandered through the enormous hall as scantily clad cheerleaders danced on stages, their images thrown onto huge screens. And everywhere was the loud, pounding music.
“As soon as the baseball game was over yesterday they started transforming the place,” said Lucy Rauferson, one of more than 100 volunteer hostesses for the event. The 60-something St. Petersburg native was dressed in buckskin and beads, and holding what looked like a gin and tonic in her hand. “I am one of the Krewe of Princess Ulele,” she explained, somewhat obscurely.
The kickoff Welcome Event for the Republican National Convention was by no means a half-hearted affair. Invitees were able to eat their fill of whole roasted pigs, vats of paella, and huge trays of baked beans. Waitresses circulated with finger food, from empanadas to baked brie, and alcohol flowed like water. All of it gratis, of course.
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“This will make St. Pete proud,” enthused Monique Descent, another Princess Ulele acolyte.
The weather cooperated, more or less. Although the afternoon had featured the occasional torrential downpour and high winds, Isaac had calmed by evening. There was a steady drizzle, but not much other evidence of the chaos brewing offshore. Convention officials had decided to cancel Monday’s events due to the dire forecasts, but on Sunday evening all was well, and the delegates were enjoying themselves.
“This was on my bucket list,” laughed Jam Plumadore, a retired state Supreme Court judge from upstate New York. “I could not take part in this kind of political campaign when I was on the bench, but now I’m getting more involved.”
Plumadore thinks that the Republican ticket has “an excellent shot” at winning in November if things stay on track.
“Of course, every day is an eternity in a campaign,” he acknowledged. “Anything could happen.”
Plumadore has been very impressed by Mitt Romney, who will finally become the official nominee of the Republican Party this week.
“He has some very, very positive qualities,” said the judge. “He has a strong work ethic and a sharp intellect. Everybody talks about what a ‘genius’ the president is, but I think Romney may actually be one. He has accomplished a tremendous amount in business, and was chief executive of a state. Paul Ryan has some of the same qualities. He’s brilliant, what I believe you media people call a ‘wonk.’”
Plumadore, like many in the hall, was convinced that the stakes had never been higher than they are now.
“You don’t have to have a very long historical memory to understand that this is one of the most important elections ever,” he said. “Our country is at a crossroads. Between the economy and the situation overseas, things are pretty dire.”
Katie Witt, mother of three from Colorado, agreed.
“The situation is very serious,” said the petite redhead. “If we keep on as we are, I don’t know what our country will look like in four years. I am worried about my kids — they’ll be off to college and trying to get jobs. The American Dream is looking a little shaky right now.”
Romney, she said, understood the economy, and could get things back on track, where President Barack Obama had not been able to make much headway.
“The economy is the main thing,” she insisted. “These issues like Romney’s taxes and his overseas bank accounts are just distractions mounted by the Democrats. Obama can’t run on his record, so he has to draw attention away from how bad things are.”
Not everyone was so positive about the man soon to accept the nomination, however.
Jorge Landivar, from Tarrant County, Texas, sported a goatee and a ten-gallon hat, and was full of admiration for his chosen candidate, Ron Paul. Landivar was one of several dozen Paul supporters who managed to get seated at the convention, and he was not convinced that his hero was totally out of the race.
“It ain’t over till the fat lady sings,” he laughed.
Chances are Paul will not get the nomination — he won just a handful of delegates in the primary, and the 77-year-old Texas congressman is more of an irritant to the Republican Party than a threat.
But his followers have, perhaps, more enthusiasm than realism in their makeup.
At a huge rally at the University of South Florida’s Sun Dome stadium on Sunday afternoon, an estimated 10,000 supporters cheered, clapped and screamed their way through rousing political ballads.
“Save our constitutional rights! We’re not gonna give up the fight!” sang Aimee Allen, a rock-singer and songwriter, whipping up the crowd. “Start a revolution! Break down illegal institutions!”
Meanwhile thousands of voices yelled, “Ron Paul! Ron Paul!”
If Romney can muster that kind of sentiment at the Tampa Bay Times Forum later this week, he’ll be lucky.
Paul is not scheduled to speak at the convention at this point — he was invited to address the delegates on the condition that he allow his remarks to be vetted by the Romney team, and that he deliver a wholehearted endorsement of the Republican candidate. He declined.
“Paul will not endorse Romney,” said Landivar. “But if he is nominated from the floor, he will speak. The most important issue is our liberty.”
Paul, a libertarian, has advocated legalizing drugs and prostitution, and does not oppose gay marriage. In fact, he says he wants the government out of the marriage business altogether. People should be able to make their own choices, he insists. Landivar agrees. He also espouses Paul’s firm stance on foreign wars — specifically, that we should not be in them.
“We are the biggest, baddest, meanest thing on the planet,” he said. “Why are we fighting goat herders? It doesn’t make sense.”
Still, Landivar would vote for Romney over Obama, if it comes down to it.
“The Democrats want to tell you what you can and can’t eat,” he said, muttering imprecations about New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s ban on giant sugary drinks. “The Republicans at least let you eat what you want.”
He smiled and made a beeline for the roasted pig.
Follow Jean MacKenzie at the GOP 2012 convention on Twitter @jeanieregis.