Short day but high spirits at GOP convention

A surprising number of delegates turned out for the two-minute first session at the Republican National Convention, which begins in earnest on Tuesday.
(Mark Boster, Los Angeles Times)

TAMPA, Fla. — The convention hall had all the trappings: Excited delegates in patriotic attire. Journalists sticking cameras in their faces. Vertical signs identifying the states. Balloons suspended high above the arena floor. But the official first day of the 2012 Republican National Convention was over almost as soon as it began.

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus called the convention to order at 2 p.m. Two minutes later, he dropped the gavel on the day, thus presiding over quite possibly the most abbreviated convention day ever. With a worrisome storm approaching the Gulf Coast, Republicans felt compelled to cancel the first day. The session took place only to satisfy the rules.

Despite the lack of action, delegates showed up in surprising numbers on the floor of the Tampa Bay Times Forum. Afterward, their evaluations were as succinct as the proceeding.

“It was very short,” said Louisiana delegate Shane French, a New Orleans physician.


“Brief, yes,” agreed Jay Batt, deputy chairman of the Republican Party of Louisiana.

More than 4,400 delegates and alternates, as well as thousands of elected officials, party donors and activists, have descended on Tampa. With about 15,000 credentialed journalists and an unknown number of protesters, the population has swelled by an estimated 50,000.

A day’s delay in the tightly choreographed convention may have caused headaches for organizers, but many delegates reacted with equanimity.

“We’re excited just to be here,” said Wisconsin delegate Kathy Kiernan, 64, who said she and her colleagues were greeted at the Tampa airport by a barbershop quartet singing “God Bless America.”

Thanks to the newly elevated status of Rep. Paul D. Ryan, who will be nominated as Mitt Romney’s running mate Wednesday, Badger State delegates have choice seats on the convention floor. “Paul Ryan, he’s a hometown guy,” Kiernan said. “We knew him since before he was shaving.”

For some, maddening street closures and hairdo-wrecking rain and wind have been a little frustrating.

“We seem to spend a lot of time lost in traffic trying to figure out how to get here,” said Ada Fisher, 64, a physician and Republican National Committee member from North Carolina.

Many delegations celebrated their arrivals Saturday night with private parties. (Wisconsin and Mississippi honored Priebus, for instance.) On Sunday, delegates and media feasted on lobster mac and cheese and shrimp ceviche washed down by as much free booze as they could (or could not) tolerate at a welcome party at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg.


And on Monday morning, the popular New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was a sought-after breakfast guest, firing up delegations around town. “He put an energy level in that room today that was second to none,” said Wayne King, vice chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party.

But for all the partying and postponing, one thing remains a priority: “In 72 days, we want to win the election,” King said. “Everything else is secondary.”

Many who trekked through rain and wind to get to Monday’s nano-session said they hoped the convention would give Americans the opportunity to see a side of Mitt Romney he rarely showed.

“Mitt Romney is a fantastic family man,” Fisher said. “If you watched the CNN special” — referring to the network’s documentary “Romney Revealed” — “I loved the part where Ann Romney talked about having MS and she couldn’t move and he got up in bed with her and just comforted her. I think all of us, particularly women, can relate to that. I think it’s a side they are going to paint. Show the good things.”


Many delegates expressed concern for those who may be in the path of a potential Hurricane Isaac, but were unfazed by the weather’s effect on the convention.

“We’re excited. We’re getting ready to gavel in, and look forward to three days of fun-packed, patriotic excitement,” said Doyle Webb, chairman of the Arkansas Republican Party.

Some were a little disappointed, though. Utah delegate John Price, a former ambassador to Mauritius and the Seychelles, said he wished the first day’s events had not been canceled. “You know, rain or shine — it’s like a baseball game.”

Former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour stood near the press risers and chatted about the fallout from the storm. “We have had some delegates and alternates go home because they have family that needs to be protected or property that needs to be secured,” said Barbour, who was in office when Hurricane Katrina devastated the coast of Mississippi. “That’s the way it ought to be, first things first.”


But, he added, “As far as their launchpad for Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, it’s going to be a great one. Those who are down on their knees praying that it will spoil the convention are in for a sad awakening.”

Meanwhile, much of the California delegation, staying in St. Pete Beach, a barrier island about 20 minutes from Tampa, had breakfast with the ubiquitous Christie on Monday, then relaxed and explored.

“We’re going to have some drinks and smoke some cigars,” said accountant Delores Chavez Harmes, an alternate delegate from San Diego. She took in a screening of “2016: Obama’s America,” a surprise hit on the conservative movie circuit, featuring a panel discussion with the director.

Others congregated in the hotel hot tub or visited the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg. At one point, there was talk of organizing a tournament to play that most capitalistic of board games: Monopoly.


Times staff writer Seema Mehta contributed to this report.