At Tampa convention, cheerleaders and tequila are serious business

Reuters News

8/30/2012 1:14:19 AM - Reuters News

By Andy Sullivan

TAMPA, Florida (Reuters) - Voters watching the Republican National Convention may see Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan and other party standard bearers on their television sets, but they don't get to sip tequila with NFL cheerleaders.

They don't get to swat line drives at Tropicana Field, home to baseball's Tampa Bay Rays. They won't get in to the yacht parties, beach parties and cigar parties that await delegates outside the convention hall.

In short, TV viewers are missing out on the real business of Tampa. At a swirl of breakfast briefings, luncheons and late-night blowouts, Republican politicians and delegates can forge tighter ties with the business interests and wealthy donors who underwrite the party.

Donors face few limits on the amount of money they can give to the convention. Interest groups and trade associations also are paying for many of the 200 events scheduled in the Tampa area this week.

Though little actual arm-twisting takes place at such events, they represent a valuable opportunity for lobbyists to build relationships with lawmakers and campaign officials who might hold positions of power if Romney wins the November 6 election against Democratic President Barack Obama.

"There are only so many venues to have events, and getting out the word that you have a good event is a way to engender goodwill," said Bill Allison, editorial director of the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit group pushing for greater transparency in government.

Just off the convention floor, Republican members of the House of Representatives can unwind in a private lounge underwritten by companies such as Diageo, Comcast and Microsoft.

At a nearby salon, delegates can freshen their makeup, buff their nails and sip cocktails, thanks to the Personal Care Products Council.

Many events come with a steep admission fee.

Want to hit a beach party with members of Oklahoma's congressional delegation? Tickets cost $1,000 each. Want to hang out with the Tennessee delegation at the Glazer Children's Museum? Those tickets cost $5,000 to $25,000.

A $1,000 check also bought admission to a Wednesday charity event at Tropicana Field, where lobbyists for tech companies and drug firms chased dreams of big-league baseball glory as they smacked fly balls into the outfield.

On the sidelines, Kentucky Representative Ed Whitfield, chairman of the House Energy and Power subcommittee, chatted with a top lobbyist for Toyota.

MERMAIDS, SHARKS, FOG

Other events only require connections -- or persistence.

A long line snaked out the door of the Florida Aquarium on Monday night, where women dressed as mermaids swam in a shark tank and midriff-baring cheerleaders for the National Football League's Tampa Bay Buccaneers posed for pictures with congressional staffers.

Partygoers walked through a curtain of mist that displayed the logos of sponsors like the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States and the National Association of Realtors.

The big money is keeping a lower profile.

"Super PACs," the new political action committees that have injected hundreds of millions of dollars into the presidential campaign, are not advertising the events at which they connect multimillion-dollar donors with party bigwigs.

American Crossroads, a Super PAC that aims to spend $200 million to defeat Obama, plans a Thursday briefing for donors who will hear from two Florida Republicans frequently mentioned as future presidential candidates: Senator Marco Rubio and former Governor Jeb Bush, a spokesman said.

A PARTY GOES AWRY

A similar event on Wednesday proved embarrassing for the Romney campaign.

According to ABC News, Romney officials met with top donors aboard a 150-foot (45-meter) yacht that was flying the flag of the Cayman Islands - the offshore tax haven that has served as a home for some of Romney's $200 million-plus fortune.

"Some advance staffer is going to lose his job over that," said a Romney supporter who did not want to be identified.

Party organizers must ensure that they do not run afoul of congressional ethics rules put in place after a series of lobbying scandals in 2007.

Because lawmakers and staffers can't accept a full meal, events tend to feature finger food like oysters, sushi and fruit skewers.

Invitations no longer promise the presence of specific lawmakers but merely note that members of a certain committee or state delegation have been invited.

One party organizer said he sensed a greater willingness to splurge than at the Republican's 2008 convention in St. Paul, Minnesota, when the party's presidential nominee was Arizona Senator John McCain, a fierce advocate of campaign-finance limits.

"The corporate money was a little bit skittish because it didn't know if it was welcome," said Republican consultant Scott Cottington. "I think it's an easier sell in Tampa than it was in St. Paul."

The Democratic Party has tried to limit the influence of outside money at its convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, next week. The attempt hasn't impressed good-government advocates, who say it is riddled with loopholes that ensure big donors will still be able to buy access.

Republicans, meanwhile, have set no limits for their event, which is expected to cost $55 million.

The head of the Tampa convention's organizing committee says there is nothing improper with accepting multimillion-dollar contributions from businesses because the money goes to promote the city, rather than the election of Romney.

"We have nothing to do with politics," said Ken Jones, president of the Tampa Bay Host Committee.

(Additional reporting by Alina Selyukh in Washington; Editing by David Lindsey and Jim Loney)