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Tom Baxter

For Tampa and Charlotte, a turn under a sometimes uncomfortable spotlight

Very shortly, two Southern cities, neither of which is Atlanta, will be in the national spotlight as they host the two national party conventions over the next couple of weeks. And maybe that’s a good thing.

As long ago as 1988, when Atlanta hosted the Democratic National Convention, pundits were predicting the demise of the quadrennial events, which they dismissed as nothing more than expensive pep rallies for the party faithful. This has never come true, which has enabled the prediction to be repeated every four years. Conventions remain an important part of presidential races, and a big deal for the cities which host them.

“This is by every measure the largest undertaking this city has ever taken on… This is our chance to tell Tampa’s story to the world and even though it’s going to be inconvenient, it will pay dividends for decades to come,” Bob Buckhorn, Tampa’s Democratic mayor, told a group of citizens concerned about the impact of the Republican National Convention which will be held in their city next week.

Much the same kind of thing is being said in Charlotte, which will host the Democrats the following week. And the Nashville Tennessean reports  that the Music City, too, is sizing up its convention credentials and considering a future bid.

Not to say that Atlanta won’t also be bidding for a national convention some time in the future, because conventions are what we do. But the thrill is gone. As the respective 2012 hosts are about to learn, a national political convention is like a small-scale version of the Olympics, only without the Olympics. Both of this year’s gatherings are shaping up to be the usual logistical nightmares, with an extra edge of 21st Century concern about terrorism and such.

It’s true that hosting one of these enormous media binges puts you on the map. But as we’ve learned by now, it can be very uncomfortable to be under that glaring light when something goes wrong.

Tampa’s first concern is a guy named Isaac. Not a dangerous nut by that name, but a tropical wave over the Atlantic Ocean  which, depending on its ambition, could become either Tropical Storm or Hurricane Isaac, and bring the mother of all worst-case scenarios to bear on the Tampa Bay area. But there’s plenty for the hosts to worry about beside that, from Ron Paul’s boisterous supporters to the hazards of moving swarms of people in and out of a narrowly defined area.

There’s a lot for the candidates to worry about, too, but for them the conventions are essential. Anyone who doubts the continuing importance of conventions as a political tool should think back to the 1988 Republican convention in New Orleans, where the elder George Bush’s “read my lips” speech derailed Dukakis-Bentsen, or the 1992 Democratic convention in New York where Bill Clinton took dramatic advantage of Ross Perot’s temporary, as it turned out, departure from the race. As a showcase for emerging political figures, think of Barack Obama’s 2004 introduction to the country in Chicago, and Sarah Palin’s debut four years ago.

Conventions don’t serve the same purpose they did back in the days when the nominee was still in doubt enough to put a little drama in the roll call vote of the states, but they have become even more important as a stage on which the parties present themselves to the nation.

It took a long time for the parties’ convention planners to get television – far longer, in fact, than it has taken them to catch on to the internet and mobile media. You have to have some vague memory of George McGovern’s 3 a.m. acceptance speech at the 1972 Democratic convention in Miami to fully appreciate the Democrats’ performance on the last night of the Denver convention four years ago, when Obama ended his acceptance speech precisely at 11 p.m. Eastern Time.

That performance was upstaged the next day by John McCain’s announcement and introduction of Palin, his running mate, proving once again that these most staged of events are still subject to the element of surprise.

And what might that be this year? There’s no telling, but if you’re headed to Tampa, you might want to bring your galoshes.


Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.


1 Comment

  1. ScottNAtlanta August 21, 2012 1:47 pm

    Its good to know that Isaac is on their radar (no pun intended) as this is looking more and more like a threat…and a big one, to some part of Florida.  Some of the modeling has this as a major hurricane coming up the FL peninsula next week.  Tampa is one of the worst cities you’d want to be stuck in as a major hurricane approaches as it is very susceptible to storm surge.  If fact, the convention center is a level one evacuation zone (first to be evacuated…cat 1 storm).  This could be a nightmare for local officialsReport


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