U.S. campaign: Before the convention, there's the commute
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - So, where are you staying?
That could be the universal greeting at the Republican National Convention next month, when about 50,000 people arrive in Tampa, Florida, to celebrate Mitt Romney's nomination as his party's presidential nominee.
With 36 hotels needed to house the 2,286 convention delegates and thousands of guests, corporate sponsors and media, convention organizers were forced to look far and, in some cases, very wide for accommodations within driving distance of the city on central Florida's Gulf Coast.
Since rooming assignments were announced this spring, there's been a rumble of discontent among party members, who typically shell out thousands of dollars to attend their party's presidential nominating jamboree. Some Republicans are in disbelief over how much time they will have to spend on a bus.
Among the people confronting an hour-long ride to reach the Tampa Bay Times Forum are the 200 Republicans in the Florida delegation — no home-field advantage for this year's host.
"They thought that putting us out in a suburb of Anchorage would be appropriate," said Sidney Dinerstein, chairman of the Palm Beach County Republicans.
While closer than Alaska, the Florida delegation will be 32 miles away from the action, staying at the Innisbrook Resort in Palm Harbor, a long drive west of downtown Tampa.
Hotel assignments are symbolic, for some, of a state's importance to the national party and are second only in status to a delegation's placement on the convention floor.
This year, two states with particularly desirable digs are Michigan and Massachusetts, Romney's birthplace and current home. Delegates from both are staying steps from the Forum.
Wisconsin, home to Republican National Committee boss Reince Priebus, also landed a plum hotel assignment.
‘TREATED LIKE PURE GOLD'
For the Floridians, their far-off lodgings are not accidental. Members of the delegation believe that they've been put in the doghouse for moving up the date of their presidential primary to January 31.
Convention officials say they don't wield housing assignments as a form of punishment. The convention's first priority was making sure state delegations weren't divided into multiple hotels, said convention spokesman James Davis.
"Everyone in Florida who is coming to the convention will be treated like pure gold," Priebus told reporters during a recent visit to Tampa Bay.
Joining Florida at the Innisbrook will be South Carolina, another state which altered the date of its primary to the displeasure of the national party.
"The penalty is what it is," said Katon Dawson, a former South Carolina Republican party chairman. "We would hitch a ride, if we had to, to get to the arena."
Dawson is taking his state's exile in stride.
"Did they mention it's a five-star resort? With four golf courses?" he said of those who are dismayed by the distance.
Also worth mentioning: the Innisbrook is owned by Sheila Johnson, a Democratic donor and co-founder of Black Entertainment Television. Hosting the delegates isn't Johnson's first display of bipartisanship: she endorsed Virginia Republican Bob McDonnell for governor in 2009.
With the modern convention choreographed down to the last piece of confetti, the wrangling over room assignments has become a new way for party big wheels to bring back some old-fashioned political infighting.
When the Texas delegation learned that it would be housed in the Saddlebrook Resort, 30 miles away from the convention, state party chairman Steve Munisteri called it "demoralizing."
"We're trying to figure out why we're being punished," he told the Washington Times.
Munisteri now says that his umbrage was a negotiating tactic in an attempt to force an upgrade. It failed.
Over 700 people will travel with the Texas delegation, a group that has grown accustomed to a starring role with a Texan on the national ticket at six of the last eight Republican conventions.
Plus, Munisteri said, Texas understands that it doesn't need any special treatment from the national party to vote for Romney— a Democrat hasn't won the state since 1976.
Getting hundreds of Texans back and forth will be a "logistical nightmare," Munisteri said, but he is already looking forward to the trip back to the hotel.
"We're sharing the Saddlebrook with the Louisiana delegation," Munisteri said, "so those bars going to be pretty wild. Come by for a bourbon."
(Reporting by Samuel P. Jacobs: Editing by Jim Loney)