TAMPA, Fla. — “Would you vote for me?”
The plaintive plea came not from GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, newly minted vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan (Wis.) or any other rising Republican star, but from a down-and-out exotic dancer running a grass-roots campaign to win a scheduled “Sarah Palin lookalike” contest at a local strip joint.
According to a number of absolutely despondent hospitality workers, times were tough enough before the Republicans co-opted their town to have a grand ol’ party.
Things are downright miserable now.
Smothering police presence (think: dozen-plus deputies in full riot gear on every other street corner) and natural geographic barriers — state delegations and attending media are scattered between Tampa, Clearwater (due west) and St. Petersburg (several miles to the south) — have blindsided businesses that fully expected to clean up this week.
Of course, some folks are doing better than others. Show Them the Money
"C’mon, tip these girls. We don't pay them to be here," the club Déjà Vu disc jockey blurts out in a backhanded attempt at solidarity.
Even after pushing free admission passes into the hands of passersby in Ybor City and plotting a slate of politically themed events (they had attempted to also recruit Hillary Rodham Clinton and Mitt Romney lookalikes), this particular den of flesh was a virtual ghost town.
Instead of fighting off gropers or losing wads of crumpled singles from bulging garters, dancers thumbed BlackBerrys and stared vacantly at sports highlights flickering across the TV.
The most enterprising unabashedly draped themselves all over the two solo gents who had come to indulge in some discretionary spending. Some swingers — she, nuzzling her man’s neck, urging him toward the stage; he, only to happy to oblige — were the only ones feeding bills to the whirling, twirling girls who graced the main stage.
Although we waited almost an hour for the would-be Palins to work the pole, nary a single faux hockey mom materialized.
Across town at the BuzzFeed party, one guest, rather than being entertained by the featured mermaids, insisted on politicizing the aquatic party favors.
"That's so weird. They won't need to do that in a Romney economy," he informed a designer-suited associate.
A Taste of the Good Life
The mood was remarkably lighter at the snazzy Taste of Southern Hospitality reception held at Raymond James Stadium.
The inaugural event was the brainchild of Alabama Republican Party Chairman Bill Armistead, who convinced his counterparts in Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Arkansas and Tennessee to join together in shining a light on their regional specialties.
The plan worked so well that several other visiting delegations — Wisconsin, West Virginia, North and South Dakota, Minnesota, New York and Rhode Island, to be exact — asked to tag along.
According to one organizer, more than 1,800 people showed up to dine, dance and recover from all the convention drama.
The spread ranged from mini po’ boys packed with savory shrimp, tender bourbon-spiced baby back ribs to dulcet bites of peach cobbler. The merrymaking also included signature beverages designed to sate everyone from the genteel to the gung ho.
“That's go-hard. That's go-home," one barkeep warned as we pondered a breezy vodka drink or a Southern Comfort-laced concoction.
There were plenty of smiling faces. Some folks were still riding the high from seeing their favorite speaker — “He rocked it, Southern-style!” one admirer said of ex-Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s Wednesday night convention address — or nabbing their hero’s John Hancock.
But the biggest winner of the night had to have been Birmingham-based artist Thomas Andrew.
He has a well-known thing for painting elephants. So Armistead encouraged him to produce some commemorative prints marrying the party symbol with both the Alabama flag and Old Glory.
Andrew took the assignment to heart, adding in a number of little extras — the whites of each of the majestic creatures’ eyes are actually little ivory R’s; the elephants are all trampling a shadowy, donkey-like figure — to entice the party faithful. Armistead then upped the ante by getting Romney to sign all four artworks the last time he stopped by Alabama.
As everyone was heading toward the exit, we caught sight of Andrew carrying a giant painting under each arm.
Turns out, the paintings had sold, landing him a $7,000 payday.