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Tampa Dispatch: The Geography of Conventionland

TAMPA—Conventionland is home to many different tribes. And, in a city as sprawling as Tampa, geography is everything. RNC press materials don’t provide a map of the different clan’s stomping grounds (something like the handy diagrams inside Game of Thrones). So, I’ll attempt to map out the GOP 2012 landscape for you.

The center of power, the capital of Conventionland, is made up of two massive structures: The Tampa Convention Center and the Tampa Bay Times Forum (where the nightly televised events take place). The enclosed Astroturf walkways connecting the two main structures are the temporary halls of power. Barriers have been erected around the perimeter of these buildings; to cross the moat, you have to pass through security checkpoints.

Amid elected power brokers inside the capital, media luminaries mingle and linger at all hours of the day and night. After dark one night, I saw Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzeznski striding quickly, her scarf fluttering behind her. Yesterday morning, before 9 a.m., I spied George Stephanopoulos walking towards the stadium. At a café inside the Embassy Suites, where I ate a $17 breakfast, I spotted Matt Lauer. Less shiny journalists are camped out in the lobby of the Forum, where the Google lounge hosts crowds of rumpled souls, clacking away at their laptops.

I’ve been told the Party’s real headquarters is in Marriott Hotel that towers next to the Convention Center, and that the lobby is the best place to spy Party celebs, like Chris Christie, up close. Certain signals reveal less well-known figures: Senators are easy to spot thanks to the pins on their navy lapels—as well as the stray Secret Service agents with sharp chins and alert eyes, swiveling their heads like birds of prey.

Just outside the castle walls, certain prized contingents—like women and social conservatives are stationed in designated pavilions. Other, slightly less powerful clans, like the state delegate groups and the Latino Leadership Network, take root farther afield, in fancy hotels near the airport. Gingrich’s Newt University has been in a different inconvenient place every day. On Tuesday it was in Clearwater, an entirely different city!

“Liberty Pavilion,” the home of social conservatives yesterday aired a screening of Santorum’s new documentary about the American Revolution produced by Citizens United. The goofy film features actors dressed in wigs portraying the founding fathers by scribbling on paper or walking pensively through nature. Interspersed between the reenactments, Santorum walks and talks through Washington. Inside the dark tent, men wearing bowties, croakies, seersucker, and white suede bucks. The smell of pork barbecue was overwhelming.

Erstwhile Tea Party favorite Sharron Angle sat down beside me during the screening and, after the film ended, told me she was working on her own documentary about voter fraud. I asked her about Representative Akin’s recent comments and the reaction from the Republicans, which was not unlike the reaction that greeted her own snafu last year when she said that a 15-year-old girl with a risky pregnancy she counseled turned “a lemon situation into lemonade” when she had her baby.

“I think someone else put it perfectly: Who put out the code red on Todd Akin?” she asked. “Why are we shooting our own soldiers in the back?” She went on: “The establishment is so quick to rush to judgment. I’ve read the comments. I think he could have said it differently but I certainly understand what he is saying and that he is definitely pro life.” She added that the press was to blame for trying to divert attention from the economy. Responding to another reporter, Angle said her views had become more mainstream within the party. “I think I was mainstream then as far as having my pulse on American thought,” she said. “They were called extreme in 2010, but if you go back and look at my comments in 2010 and what I was running on, I think you’ll say, “oh my gosh, I just saw a Romney/Ryan ad that says exactly what Sharron Angle was saying.” Santorum, who was visibly irritated by my presence, perhaps because I’m not from the conservative media, refused to make eye contact and answered my questions begrudgingly as he walked with family and friends.

Not everyone adapts well to the peculiar landscape that is Conventionland. On my way out of the Liberty Pavilion, I ran into super PAC donor Foster Friess, a man who exudes kindness. He commented on the “nightmare” of busy convention, explaining that he’s not used to crowds. Not a stranger to feudal graces, he removed a purple-flowered lei from his neck and graciously bestowed it upon me.