The Storm Gathers in Tampa

Tomorrow was supposed to be the first day of the Republican National Convention, but I and the rest of my companions sitting her in Tampa won’t be gathering in the Tampa Bay Times Forum as planned.

Instead, Tropical Storm Isaac has derailed the first day, and we will be squeezing the speakers and activities from Monday into the other three days.

One thing the delay does afford us, though, is more time to prepare.  Today, I spent a great deal of time in the Tampa Convention Center (where much of the staff, news organizations, and support organizations work from), as well as the Tampa Bay Times Forum (where the actual convention takes place).

For the uninitiated who have never been to a convention, allow me to give you a preview for how this massive beast of an event happens.

Conventions are enormous spectacles, logistical nightmares that take years of planning to even begin to pull off.  Tens of thousands of attendees converge on a central location (in this case, probably around 50,000 to 60,000), including more than 2,000 official delegates.

Complicating matters is the presence of hundreds of very important elected officials, including Members of Congress, United States Senators, governors, and of course the nominees for president and vice president.  The participation of these people necessitate a titanic level of security.

Since arriving in Tampa, one thing has been crystal clear: they are not messing around with security.  I arrived on Saturday morning, and what I found was a veritable army stationed here.  From the time I first stepped foot outside of my hotel to go grab a bite at Subway, I was unable to walk more than a block without seeing a team of Florida State Police, local Tampa Bay Police, or National Guard patrolling.

Some were on foot, some on bikes, some on horseback.  All were deadly serious, and refused to say more than two words to you, if spoken to.  On my three block walk to get myself a sandwich, I saw probably 60 security officers of some kind.

The entire convention area, naturally, is on complete lock down.  It is impossible to get into the Tampa Bay Times Forum or the Convention Center without credentials.  There are a half dozen layers of security to go through, including visual inspections, metal detectors, bag searches, etc.  As I said, they aren’t messing around with security.

And it is a good thing.  Protesters, even in the hurricane, have descended upon the city and have begun defacing public property in downtown Tampa.  There has been some physical damage to private property, buildings and sidewalks are repeatedly tagged with chalk, and large groups of protesters (my favorite so far, a group of Code Pink protesters dressed as – I am not kidding – vaginas) are encircling the city.

Nearly all of them are peaceful, but this afternoon the security detail had to arrest a protester affiliated with Occupy Wall Street, who was belligerent, armed a machete and was attempting to gain access.

Speaking of the protesters, it is interesting to note that in my two days here it has become clear that the locals are more afraid of them than they are the storm.  I’ve made a habit of chatting up the local business owners around town, and every single one of them has been complaining about the behavior from the protesters.

A waitress in a Mexican restaurant I went to Saturday, for instance, told me that they had considered boarding up their windows – not because of the hurricane, but to prevent broken windows and pillaging from protesters.

The most amusing visitors to Tampa, though, aren’t the Republicans or the protesters, but the little lizards that seem to be crawling around everywhere.  I feel like I am about to be ganged up on and sold car insurance.

Once you get by the increasingly large group of protesters and get inside, however, it becomes apparent that the event you are a part of is larger than just the convention hall and the 50,000 people who will be attending.  This afternoon when I walked in for a meeting, I passed by former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer and moderator of Meet the Press David Gregory, sharing a laugh.

The convention itself is split into two locations.  For the 2012 RNC, the main site where everything you will see on TV will be is the Tampa Bay Times Forum, the place where the Tampa Bay Lightning (among others) play.

Across the street, though, is the Convention Center.  This is the home for the thousands of people who serve as support staff for the convention and Romney for President, as well as the media covering the event (CNN’s space by itself is incredible), and all of the vendors providing services at the RNC.

This is the part of the convention no one at home gets to see, but it is actually the most important part of the event, because it is the source of all the technical control over the proceedings that keeps it running, as well as the coverage everything receives in the media.

On the second floor, for example, is “Radio Row”, where dozens of radio shows are broadcasting, from NPR to FoxNews Radio.  The major television networks have their own space, and can often be seen roaming on the floor doing live standups on location.

Dozens of rooms are filled with thousands of people, all of whom are tasked with making the event run seamlessly.  I could write for hours about these behind the scenes aspects of the RNC, but suffice it to say there is just as much (if not more) happening in the Convention Center.

But the main event is over at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.  This is where the business of the party is conducted, all the delegates and spectators gather, and all the speeches happen.

The entire Forum has been completely transformed from top to bottom.  There is no sign of a sports facility any longer, with every column having been wrapped in RNC branding, the sporting goods store converted into a Romney gift store, and political signage has been hung all over the perimeter of the building.

Walking into the actual convention area is really quite amazing.  The entire arena has been converted into what we would all recognize as a political theater stage.  On the floor are designated areas for delegates from every state, as well as the American territories.

Maine is seated off to the far right edge of the floor, directly next to a sign that says “We Can Do Better”.  They don’t have the best view, but they are hardly in the worst position.  I would not want to be in Nebraska or Connecticut’s delegation, they seem to be the furthest away.

On stage today while the techs were testing out the lights, sound and displays was a very wooden set of steps and podium.  With a great tribute to the departed Neil Armstrong on the video monitors behind, the entire setup mixed nicely with the bright red and blue lights shining all around the arena.

It is hard not to notice the convergence of important people in both the political world, and the world of media.  Within ten minutes of being in the convention hall, I had spotted Governor Nikki Haley feeling out the podium, and Chuck Todd, Luke Russert, Andrea Mitchell, and Kelly O’Donnell all prowling around.  It is easily the Super Bowl of politics.

Watching the people who are logistically supporting the convention was quite interesting.  One sound technician, I can honestly only describe to you by saying he looked like a bigger, more powerful version of The Rock carried a microphone with him across the floor, while many much smaller, fatter, and weaker companions of his were hauling massive speakers, suitcases and other equipment.

After doing some meetings back in the work area of the Convention Center in the afternoon, I headed back over to the Forum, where I was lucky enough to see FoxNews anchors Bret Baier and Megyn Kelly in front of the stage, recording a segment.  It is fascinating to watch news people when they aren’t surrounded by all the graphics and dramatic music, because it completely changes the dynamic you are seeing.

After the day of work, though, is the real reason so many people come to these conventions.  Nightlife, particularly sponsored parties, are the thing most people look forward to.  Ask anyone who has been to a convention before, and typically you will get a smile returned to you, and some kind of story told about the event really just being “one giant party”.  Concerts, social gatherings, secret invite only soirees  – there is no end of things to do while you are at a convention.

I’ve taken the first couple of nights easily, mostly because the best parties will be held during the week.  In particular, I am looking forward to the bash being thrown Monday night by Facebook, Tuesday night by GOProud (you and I both know that will be the best party of the week), and Thursday night by Google.

Tomorrow, many of us will be hunkered down in our hotels as the worst weather from the hurricane passes by Tampa.  Thankfully it will not be making direct contact with western Florida, but our thoughts and prayers are of course with the people of the deep south as the storm continues to threaten Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi.

As the convention progresses I will bring you more updates from Tampa.  As for tomorrow, I expect “rain” to be the only word on my mind.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.