TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Tampa is a hot property for the Republicans this year, and that doesn't just mean the 90-degree temperatures in August that will begin to sauté national convention delegates every time they step outdoors.
There's political heat here, too.
The site of the Republican National Convention Aug. 27-30 is situated at the west end of the Interstate 4 corridor, home to the largest concentration of swing voters in the largest swing state.
It's no coincidence, then, that the Republicans have placed their convention here; Mitt Romney desperately needs to win Florida if he is going to defeat President Barack Obama. The corridor, 132 miles of bustling highway from Tampa to Daytona Beach, cuts through Orlando and seven diverse central Florida counties still hurting from a recession that has been slow to loosen its grip here.
About a quarter of the state's registered voters are in the Tampa TV market and local media coverage will be wall-to-wall for at least a week. Add the Orlando TV market, and the area encompasses 44 percent of all Florida voters. The pomp and grand ritual of a political convention in their own backyards could go a long way toward swaying undecided voters.
"Florida is a symbol that is well known to Republicans across the country," said Susan MacManus, a University of South Florida political science professor. "If they can't win Florida, they can't win the White House back. It's plain and simple. Even the Democrats will be tuned in to see how things are playing here."
The region commonly referred to as "Tampa Bay" includes St. Petersburg, Clearwater and surrounding sprawl, a metro area of more than 3 million people as diverse as the nation itself. Most everybody here came from someplace else, drawn by the weather, pre-recession opportunities and cheap cost of living, bringing their attitudes and values with them.
Cuban and Puerto Rican influences are evident, from the many Cuban coffee and sandwich spots to the decent-sized Hispanic neighborhoods and many businesses serving them in west Tampa.
MacManus said a Tampa convention will give Republicans an opportunity to showcase the diverse faces of the party here, when typically the GOP is not known as the party of diversity. The GOP's rising star happens to be U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American from Miami who will undoubtedly be highly visible during the convention.
"Putting a diverse face on the party is easier in Florida," MacManus said.
The real estate crisis and recession took a mighty swipe at Florida, and the Tampa Bay area in particular, as new construction came to a standstill, housing prices plummeted and cash-strapped tourists began staying home. There has been improvement, but it lags behind most of the nation. Republicans will be trying to tap into that unrest.
"Holding the convention in Tampa allows us to begin organizing earlier and stronger than usual in Florida," national Republican Party spokesman Matt Connelly said. "It gives us an opportunity to organize in the key market of Tampa, which is going to be important to victory in November, to get people on the ground talking to voters, get to know the community and spread our message of pro-growth economics that we're going to be talking about throughout the campaign."
Growth has always been Tampa's — and Florida's — major industry. Census figures say the Tampa Bay area increased its population by around 16 percent from 2000 to 2010. Although the recession has slowed it down some, Tampa is still one of the fastest growing areas in one of the fastest growing states.
The rapid growth since the 1950s (when home air-conditioners started to become common) has created a melting pot of people and cultures composed of transplants from up North. Traditional thinking has it that people from New York and New Jersey followed Interstate 95 down to settle in southeastern Florida, while the Tampa Bay area and the southwestern beaches got those from Ohio, Michigan and other Midwestern states because they ended up in the Sunshine State via Interstate 75.
The lack of an overarching identity is underscored in the struggles of one of the area's three major sports teams, baseball's Tampa Bay Rays. The team plays in the domed Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg — well away from the region's population center in Tampa — and has struggled to build an enthusiastic fan base since joining the American League as an expansion team in 1998, despite emerging as one of baseball's best stories the past few seasons. The Rays continue to linger near the bottom of all teams in attendance, and when big-market teams like the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox come to town, it's not unusual to see more local transplants at the dome rooting for the visiting teams than the hometown squad.
While Tampa has hosted multiple Super Bowls — the most recent was 2009 — and other big events, the convention is a big win for the region. Around 50,000 visitors will fill hotels on both sides of the bay during what is typically a down time of year for tourism. The local host committee pledged to raise $50 million to put on the event, and officials say they are on track to meet the goal.
Florida hasn't hosted a major political convention since 1972, when both parties held their conventions in Miami Beach, nominating President Richard Nixon for a second term and U.S. Sen. George McGovern as the Democratic nominee.
Delegates will be greeted by searing summer heat and humidity — not to mention almost daily afternoon thunderstorms — that can make it unpleasant to be outside. As many as 400 air-conditioned buses will shuttle delegates and other visitors from their hotels on both sides of the bay to the Tampa Bay Times Forum, the downtown hockey arena hosting the festivities. A temporary 1,000-foot covered, air-conditioned walkway between the arena and work area at the Tampa Convention Center will keep the 5,000 media members out of the sun.
What remains to be seen is whether the steamy conditions will deter protesters who have promised a major presence on the downtown streets.
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