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Convention Contributions Down and More Discreet

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This article originally appeared in the CQ Weekly 2012 Republican Convention Guide.

When the 2012 Tampa Bay Host Committee pledged to raise $55 million to cover the cost of staging the Republican National Convention, organizers expected much of the money to come from companies hoping to capitalize on five days of almost unfettered access to America's political elite.

But the sluggish economy combined with anti-corporate sentiment have led some would-be sponsors to reconsider their engagements. General Motors Corp., Citigroup Inc. and other big companies that played a significant role in past national party gatherings have scaled back, either by giving less to host committees, canceling parties and advocacy events or scuttling plans to attend altogether.

This year, the political costs of making a big splash in Tampa seem to outweigh the benefits, according to more than a dozen lobbyists and consultants representing major outfits.

"You're not going to see the Rainbow Room with Alaskan crab legs," says Darrell Henry, a partner at GOP Convention Strategies, a consulting firm that helps such companies as Novo Nordisk and groups such as the National Association of Manufacturers plan convention activities.

"I'm not sure why corporations would give to either party's convention given the negative press you get," says one Republican lobbyist, who has close ties to Mitt Romney's presidential campaign. "A lot of lobbyists are counseling their clients not to spend a lot of money hosting parties because of the optics."

Of course, some trade groups and industry players remain undeterred. The Edison Electric Institute, the Nuclear Energy Institute and the American Gas Association are sponsoring nightly beach parties near Hidden Harbour with $1,000-a-head admission, while Norfolk Southern Corp., Expedia.com and other transportation heavyweights are feting members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee at Stumps Supper Club, with tickets ranging from $5,000 to $20,000 a pop.

But such events may prove to be more the exception than the norm with lower entertainment budgets and fewer corporate lobbyists in attendance.

The phenomenon is partly connected to Democrats' new restrictions on donations at their convention next week in Charlotte. The Democratic host committee pledged to reject all corporate, lobbyist and political action committee cash. Individual donations may not exceed $100,000.

The self-imposed limits, intended to highlight President Obama's stated commitment to take money out of politics, made it harder for the Charlotte committee to come up with the $36.7 million it needed to support the event. The limits also posed a challenge for companies that want to contribute evenly to both parties.

Ken Jones, president and chief executive of the Tampa host committee, says that the broader conversation about corporate influence in politics has deterred some companies from writing checks altogether. Add to that the effects of stubbornly high unemployment linked to the slow economic recovery and polling showing record public dissatisfaction with elected officials.

"Even though we are a charity and have nothing to do with electing officials, we get painted with that brush," Jones says.

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