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Tampa wins bid to host 2012 GOP convention

FILE - In this Feb. 16, 2005, file photo, The St. Pete Times Forum, the home of Tampa Bay Lightning in Tampa, Fla. The 660,000-square-foot St. Pete Times Forum with be the site of the Republican 2012 presidential convention. FILE - In this Feb. 16, 2005, file photo, The St. Pete Times Forum, the home of Tampa Bay Lightning in Tampa, Fla. The 660,000-square-foot St. Pete Times Forum with be the site of the Republican 2012 presidential convention. (AP Photo/Scott Audette)
By Tamara Lush
Associated Press Writer / May 13, 2010

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TAMPA, Fla.—After trying and failing -- twice -- to entice the Republican National Convention to this Gulf Coast city, a group of community leaders and GOP insiders finally succeeded.

A Republican National Committee panel recommended Tampa as the site of the 2012 convention during a closed-door meeting Wednesday, rejecting Salt Lake City and Phoenix. The decision came amid calls from Hispanic groups and others to boycott Arizona after it adopted a law to crack down on illegal immigrants -- although Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele insisted the uproar played no part in the convention choice. He said it was "purely a business decision."

"We are very proud to call and tell you that Tampa is the host city," he said during a conference call.

Cheers and ear-to-ear grins filled a Tampa conference room as he spoke.

"We are looking forward to working with you," Al Austin, the host committee chairman, told Steele on the phone. "We are going to hit the road running tomorrow and start the fundraising. We look forward to this fantastic opportunity."

As the committee was rejoicing over the announcement, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist was changing his party affiliation from Republican to "none" in his hometown of St. Petersburg. That cleared the way for him to seek an open Senate seat as an independent without first winning an uphill Republican primary campaign against tea party favorite Marco Rubio.

As governor, Crist will be the honorary event chairman for a party he left. He said he would work on the convention "as much as I can."

"Whether it was a Republican convention or a Democratic convention, it wouldn't matter to me. As a Floridian, I'm really proud it's in our state. That's what matters first," Crist said.

The convention will be held the week of Aug. 27, 2012. An estimated 40,000 people will attend, including politicians, journalists, staffers and volunteers.

The prospective convention site will be at the St. Pete Times Forum, located on the waterfront downtown. It's also home to the Tampa Bay Lightning hockey team.

Seth Masket, a political science professor at the University of Denver who blogged about his experience during the 2008 Democratic National Convention, said Tampa Bay residents are in for a good time.

"It's a very exciting time for a city," he said.

Worries about traffic and security in Denver never really became reality, Masket said, and some folks made money by renting out their apartments and homes and leaving town.

"You can do pretty well for yourself, renting out your home," he said. "I don't know how many hotel rooms Tampa has available, but they will be eaten up pretty quickly."

Officials hope the convention will bring a much-needed economic and employment boost to the area. The unemployment rate in Hillsborough County -- where Tampa is located -- is hovering around 13 percent.

Ken Hagan, chairman of the Hillsborough County Commission and a member of the host committee, said the convention could bring some 3,000 jobs and $100 million in wages to the area.

"It could not have happened at a better time," he said.

Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, who is a Democrat yet served on the host committee, noted that Tampa has hosted four Super Bowls and is in the running for the FIFA World Cup soccer championships in 2018 or 2022.

"Tampa is on the map as a major city in the U.S., " she said.

But civic leaders acknowledged that this will be a massive undertaking for the area.

Political conventions are a logistical test for any city, as thousands of people flock into the region, test infrastructure and bring in millions of dollars. Tampa officials said transportation plans and security top the list of priorities.

There are some 21,000-plus hotel rooms in Hillsborough County, according to Tampa Bay and Company, the area's convention and visitors bureau that helped with the GOP bid.

Austin brushed off reporters' questions regarding whether the committee could raise more than $40 million in private donations to stage the convention.

"We're not even going to think about that," Austin said.

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Associated Press writers Mitch Stacy in St. Petersburg and Philip Elliott in Oxon Hill, Md., contributed to this report.