San Diego: Ready for Prime Time at Last? : Image: City, rejected by GOP in '72, pushes hard for party's '96 convention.


New York is the Big Apple, Dallas the Big D, and New Orleans the Big Easy.

But when it comes to hosting national political conventions, San Diego--the pretty, sunny ingenue of cities tucked away in the nation's southwest corner--is the Big Hurt.

Alone among the nation's biggest cities, San Diego has never hosted one of these quintessentially American events that have mixed democracy and tomfoolery since the short-lived Anti-Masonic Party met in Baltimore in 1831.

San Diego came close once to hosting one of the quadrennial wingdings, painfully close.

In 1972 the city was chosen--and then spurned--by the Republican Party, which feared the taint of a political scandal and radical demonstrators. The insult of losing the convention has smoldered in the civic breast ever since.

Now that slight may finally be rectified: San Diego, New Orleans and San Antonio are finalists for the 1996 Republican National Convention, with the decision expected in weeks.

No one on the inside is willing to say which of the three cities is the front-runner. But there is cautious optimism locally that this may be the year that San Diego finally is welcomed into the family of truly big cities, those places that Mayor Susan Golding calls "the 500-pound gorillas capable of handling a major political convention."

For one thing, Gov. Pete Wilson--former San Diego Mayor Pete Wilson in these parts--is riding the crest of a recent landslide and being talked up as a GOP presidential contender. And don't forget that California has 54 electoral votes, the most of any state.

San Diego also has a gleaming new convention center, a forest of new high-rise hotels and a revitalized downtown, and is at the forefront of political and economic issues dear to Republicans: Pacific Rim trade, NAFTA, conversion from lunch-bucket industries to high-tech and biotech, spurring small business growth, keeping government lean and battling illegal immigration.

If San Diego emerges triumphant in the big-bucks competition to snag the convention, it may, at long last, provide a modicum of salve to the political wound left by the debacle of 1972. The city had been selected by President Richard Nixon to host the convention that year where he would accept his party's nomination for four more years. Nixon considered San Diego his lucky city.

After months of arduous planning, the complex preparations were nearly complete, the bunting was ready to be draped, and the party hats and souvenirs were at hand. Wilson--then in his maiden year as a fiscally conservative, socially moderate, environmentally hip mayor--was eager to show the world that San Diego was major league.

It didn't happen. Ninety days before the convention, the Republicans abruptly dumped San Diego and switched to Miami.

The official story was that the party was worried about labor troubles, a shortage of grade-A hotels with room service, problems at the San Diego Sports Arena, and a mob of anti-Vietnam War protesters.

Another factor was a scandalous memo from International Telephone and Telegraph lobbyist Dita Beard that got leaked to columnist Jack Anderson. Beard had bragged to her bosses that she could get an antitrust investigation against ITT dropped in exchange for a $400,000 contribution to the GOP convention in San Diego. The Sheraton ITT hotel in San Diego was to have been one of the convention headquarters.

When the cancellation was announced, the civic sting was palpable.

"A lot of people felt it was a slap in San Diego's face," remembers John Lockwood, the city bureaucrat who was in charge of convention preparations and was dining in the White House with the head of the Secret Service and Sammy Davis Jr. when the cancellation was announced.

"It was a major blow to the city's psyche," remembers David Nuffer, a longtime Chamber of Commerce leader.

"A civic black eye," recalls Larry Thomas, who was Wilson's press secretary at the time and is still a Wilson political insider.

A story atop the front page of the San Diego Evening Tribune told a tale of confusion among the citizenry at the turn of events, including a banner spotted on a downtown building that asked plaintively: "What the Hell Happened?"

So enormous was the disappointment that Wilson went into full damage control.

Gently chiding the honchos of his own party, the mayor unilaterally dubbed San Diego as America's Finest City, a sobriquet it carries to this day. He decreed that San Diego would hold an America's Finest City Week festival to celebrate "the delight that is San Diego" during the same week the Republicans were in Miami.

The damage, however, was done.

It would be 16 years before San Diego officialdom would again summon the courage to even consider bidding for a national political convention. A flicker of interest at City Hall in bidding for one of the 1988 conventions died when construction of San Diego's waterfront convention center fell behind schedule.

For the 1992 Republican convention, the GOP asked San Diego to enter the bidding at the eleventh hour, although conventional wisdom held that Houston, home to the sitting President, was a lock.

San Diego officials, reluctantly and warily, made a bid. A flurry of press leaks said San Diego would get the nod.

Houston got the convention. The suspicion in San Diego was that the Republicans had only been toying with San Diego to get Houston to sweeten its offer.

Now, decision-making time for the 1996 Republican convention is approaching, and San Diego is in full pursuit, this time from the very opening of the competition. No last-minute entry, nothing shy, nothing halfway.

GOP leaders have already made one preliminary decision: New York was dumped from contention when its Republican mayor committed political heresy by backing Gov. Mario Cuomo, a Democrat, for reelection.

In San Diego, the community Zeitgeist says that at long last, the city may have arrived.

"This is not the same city it was in 1972," said City Manager Jack McGrory, repeating what has become a municipal mantra.

"Twenty years ago, San Diego was not ready for prime time," said John Kern, a San Diego political consultant. "Now we are."

Among its virtues, San Diego has the nation's balmiest summer weather and a long list of tourist attractions: beaches, golf courses, the world-famous San Diego Zoo, Sea World, the Wild Animal Park, and a downtown night life that, while not nearly as jazzy and sexy and tasty as New Orleans, is hardly Dubuque.

Add to the mix a telegenic Republican mayor, a willingness to remodel the convention center to fit the demands of network television, and a plan to raise millions of dollars from private donors to underwrite the Aug. 10-16 extravaganza.

"If you're eligible to be married and you have been left at the altar like San Diego was, first in 1972 and then four years ago, you realize that things can't go on like this forever," said Reint Reinders, head of the Convention and Visitors Bureau. "They can only make you dance through the hoops so many times."

Still, to some the whole convention hustle is very San Diego, mixing giddy boosterism and deep-seated insecurity.

"San Diego is trying to act grown-up, but it just doesn't know how," said San Diego political consultant Ann Shanhan-Walsh.

"It's another example of San Diego's constant need to have its self-image reaffirmed from the outside," said author Francine Phillips. "It's like, 'If they give us a convention, maybe we're OK after all.' "

Phillips is the co-author, with talk-show host Roger Hedgecock, of a sassy paperback, "If We Say It Enough We'll Believe It," billed as "San Diego's Finest Book About America's Finest City." The humiliation of 1972, she said, left the city with a "communal cringe" at the idea of hosting a political convention and being the object of worldwide attention.

"We kind of want it, but we kind of don't want it," she said. "San Diego is looking over its shoulder, worrying, 'My God, what if we do actually get it?' "

No such ambivalence, however, is suffered by Mayor Golding. She wants the convention, thinks San Diego deserves the convention, and has made securing it a major priority.

"San Diego is the sixth-largest city in the country," she said, "and it is a great convention city."

If there is a sticking point with San Diego's bid, it is the convention center, which, despite its stunning appearance and light, airy interior, is a bit small by the standards of national political conventions. The New Orleans Superdome it is not.

The city has offered to rearrange, remodel and stretch the main ballroom to seat 19,400 and provide enough sky boxes to accommodate the networks and the VIPs. But the party's magic number, to take care of all the officeholders, party faithful and sundry fat cats, is a minimum of 20,000 and preferably more like 25,000.

There was some thought of using San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium for the final session, when the presidential candidate pledges his troth to the party, but the late-afternoon sun would force the candidate to squint or wear sunglasses, a no-no for television.

To trump New Orleans, San Diegans merely mention the summer weather: muggy there, gorgeous here. Humorist P. J. O'Rourke, a reluctant attendee at the 1988 Republican convention in New Orleans, called his visit "like taking a sauna in a high-crime drainage ditch."

And if the GOP is inclined to win one for the Gipper, San Diego wouldn't mind in the least. Ronald Reagan was recruited to narrate a 16-minute video called "Sailing to Victory" touting San Diego as the perfect convention site.

It is an article of faith with business and political leaders that a political convention, with its gavel-to-gavel media coverage, is an unsurpassed opportunity for a city to strut its stuff and get the kind of attention that attracts tourists, business investors and blue-ribbon bond ratings.

The same was true in 1972 when Wilson saw the convention as a priceless opportunity to show the world that San Diego, long considered a cultural and political cul-de-sac, had changed.

"The convention was supposed to be Wilson's way to show the world that San Diego was no longer a sleepy Navy town and was going to be a force, both in the state and nation," said Bill Ritter, an organizer of anti-war protesters in San Diego in 1972 and now a correspondent for "Good Morning America" on ABC-TV. "Instead the city got caught up in a scandal."

Ritter and the other demonstrators went to Miami. G. Gordon Liddy's plan--as related in John Dean's book "Blind Ambition"--to kidnap and drug protest leaders and hold them in Mexico during the San Diego convention was never needed.

Soon all that was left of the convention-that-never-was were a few gags and trinkets.

A publicist gave Wilson a book supposedly detailing all the wonderful things the Republican Party had done for San Diego. The pages were blank.

John Beatty, who was then a reporter at KGTV Channel 10 in San Diego and is now editorial director at the station, had the presence of mind to save an ashtray and some drinking glasses with the emblem "Welcome Republicans. San Diego. 1972."

"It's the kind of stuff your kids throw away as soon as you die," Beatty said the other day.

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