By Stump Connolly

Got to the Tampa Bay convention center late this morning––not a problem since there was no convention. Much of Tampa remains under soggy skies. Delegates are hunkered down in their hotels holding welcome breakfasts. But since the Republicans have issued me a press pass, it seemed only right that I should use it, if only to see what my brethren are up to.

Although there are only 2,250 delegates to the Republican convention, the party has issued over 15,000 press passes to radio, TV, print and web journalists, both foreign and domestic. They are all housed in the original Tampa convention center, even though the convention itself will be next door in the Tampa Bay Forum, home of the Tampa Bay Lightning in the NHL and a favored stop on the Professional Bull Riders circuit.

All the major newspapers, wire services, radio and TV outlets have side rooms dedicated to their operations. CNN has one the size of a football field that includes a newsroom, convention set and a bar & grill to feed the employees. Bloggers and the freelance writers (think me) all share a common workspace called The File Center where the Republicans have set up 300 Internet drop connections available on a first come-first serve basis.

The File Center

The File Center has its own sponsor, Google/You Tube, which has done what it can to make the space look like a Silicon Valley start-up. There’s a free Starbucks coffee bar, a photo booth for souvenir pictures, and a small studio set for recording “Google+ Hangouts” that YouTube will livestream over a dedicated Republican convention channel. When I arrive, the first livestream is being set up. I peek into the “Digital Center” to find five Google computer techs hunched over their laptops staring at a blank TV screen.

“Are you getting it now?” one of the Googlets asks.
“I’m getting it, but I’m logged in as the administrator,” says another.
“Are you going in on Chrome or Google+,” asks a third.
“I think I can see both,” the first one says.
“Let me go check something,” says the second.
He races out of the room and returns a moment later.
“Relax, they’re not doing it yet.”

I smile. A lifetime of watching this happen in the video world makes my happy to see the tradition has been passed on to the digital realm.

Tangential News

I take a quick lap around the pressrooms to see if any old friends from the campaign trail are hanging out. Of course, they’re not. There is no convention today. So I take the long walk through an air-conditioned tent that connects the press center to The Forum. On the way, I have my first celebrity sighting: Herman Cain walking briskly in the opposite direction with two camera crews in tow. “The polls that say you don’t have a lot of last minute voting for conservatives are completely wrong,” he opines. I dutifully write it down on my notepad, then say to myself: what the hell does Herman Cain know about polls?

A Giant TV Studio

The Forum holds 21,000 fans on a game day, but the seating has been pared down to half that to accommodate the Republicans. Most of the lost territory has gone into designing the podium to look like “America’s Living Room.” It is “based on a warm but modern approach,” according to a party fact sheet, “traditional American Prairie style architecture merged with modern technology.”

That technology includes 36 channels of HD Playback on 13 LED television screens (9 million pixels), the largest of which is 381 square feet. The hoped for effect, Republicans say, is a tableau of American values reflecting the theme for each night of the convention.

There are press risers on both sides of the podium for the print media and camera platforms ringing the arena for TV crews. The sky box level has been reserved for sponsors and an assortment of smaller broadcast organizations. And I can’t help but notice in the rafters that red, white and blue balloons are bagged and ready for the Thursday night balloon drop.

Talker Row

I return to the press center to look again for a few familiar faces, but stumble into an area known as “Talker Row.” Along one corridor, both sides of the aisle are filled with talk radio hosts broadcasting live from the convention site. There are almost 50 booths set up. Most are empty. (There is no convention, remember?) But talk radio abhors a vacuum so I watch dumbfounded as one commentator prattles on about the federal government making it hard for him to file his taxes and another warns that if Barack Obama is re-elected to a second term, he’ll use federal mandates to take away your guns.

I walk down the aisle slowly absorbing snippets from the medium. “You don’t have your freedom. And that’s the point. When you lose your property, you lose your liberty” ( . . . “Now nobody’s suggesting there’s a fascist element to this, but . . . (conservative radio network) . . .  “You’re not going to see it on ABC, NBC, CBS. The media has taken over the country” (Jon Voight, star of “Midnight Cowboy”, to a gaggle of talkers).

Simple Truths

Midway down the row,  I see a familiar face, Mike Huckabee, talking to a 14-year-old girl who just wrote a book called “Our Constitution Rocks!” She says the book is her attempt to explain the Constitution to her peers.

“I think that’s incredible,” Huckabee says. “You really ought to send a copy to President Obama. It will simplify it for him.”

The girl is sitting next to her mother, Jeanine McDonnell. Huckabee asks how much she helped her daughter. McDonnell professes she had little to do with the actual content (although it is a graphics-rich book of almost 200 pages).

“You’ll be speaking at the convention yourself tomorrow, won’t you?” Huckabee asks slyly. Ah yes, she will, she admits (because she is the daughter of Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell – a swing state – and head of the Republican platform committee). But the important thing to talk about here is her daughter’s dedication to helping her peers understand the founding fathers, she says.

There’s Nothing Common About Sense

I was driving back the hotel after my day at the (non) convention listening to the car radio. There are probably two dozen radio talkers on the air in Tampa, almost all conservative or very conservative. As you switch from station to station, you discover a world so loaded with common sense that any 14-year-old can understand it.

Then I thought back to the Huckabee interview with the girl. He was kind, he was gentle . . . but a 14-year-old writing a book about constitutional law? Who are we kidding?

If it were all that simple, people wouldn’t be spending $2 billion this year trying to elect the next president of The United States.

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