City is ‘Favorite’ for Convention, Republicans Say

New York City has emerged as the front-runner in the race to host the Republican National Convention in 2004, senior national Republicans have told The Observer .

“New York is the odds-on favorite,” said Rick Wilson, a Florida-based G.O.P. consultant who discusses the matter regularly with officials from the Republican National Committee. “People from the R.N.C. share the view that New York is the favorite for many reasons-political, symbolic and, frankly, in their ability to put a bid together.”

“There’s no question that key Republican decision-makers in Washington are leaning towards New York,” added Rick Davis, a nationally known G.O.P. consultant.

The idea of Republicans staging their convention in New York-a state with 5-to-3 ratio of Democrats to Republicans, and one that hasn’t been carried by a G.O.P. Presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan in 1984-may seem as far-fetched as the notion of Democrats having their quadrennial party in Dallas. And anything can happen between now and next month, when party officials are scheduled to make their final decision. But there are signs that New York is edging ahead of Tampa and New Orleans, its chief competitors.

Many Republicans say that New Orleans has all but dropped out of the running, and one Republican consultant close to the R.N.C. said that party officials were growing unhappy with Tampa’s bid. They’re worried that Tampa won’t be able to raise enough money to host the convention and that it lacks hotel rooms to house the thousands of reporters, delegates and party officials that besiege the host city. To deal with the city’s hotel shortage, Tampa officials are offering to house Republican visitors in cruise ships, but the offer may have backfired, because senior R.N.C. officials are concerned that the image of Republicans yukking it up on the decks of cruise ships could reinforce the G.O.P.’s reputation as the party of privilege.

“They think it’s bad optics,” the G.O.P. consultant close to the R.N.C. said. “That’s not what they’re trying to project.”

In recent weeks, New York City and state officials-who recently suffered a setback when the Democrats decided to hold their convention in Boston-have made new efforts to sweeten their offer to the Republicans. They have enlisted the architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill to draw up plans to transform the James A. Farley Post Office Building into a giant media center, which will be connected to Madison Square Garden by a bridge over Eighth Avenue.

The Skidmore plan, which has been circulating among RNC officials and was obtained by The Observer , calls for the creation of 230,000 square feet of media workspace in the building’s basement and on the first floor, and provides access to 100,000 square feet of dock space for trucks bearing media equipment.

Charles Gargano, the chairman of the Empire State Development Corporation, recently led R.N.C. officials on a tour of the Farley building, and said he was encouraged by their show of interest.

“They have since made many inquiries,” Mr. Gargano said. “I would conclude that there must be active discussion in Washington about the possibility of their coming to New York.”

There are also signs that Mr. Bush’s inner circle is beginning to give New York a hard look. Jack Oliver, the President’s former finance director and now the deputy chairman of the R.N.C., recently phoned Mr. Gargano and made a series of requests for information about pedestrian traffic between the buildings, sources familiar with the discussions said.

To be sure, there are still plenty of factors working against New York. Among them, according to Republicans involved in the selection process, are the city’s strong union presence, the inevitable competition with countless other events for the city’s attention, and the fact that Mayor Michael Bloomberg-a lifelong liberal Democrat and political neophyte-remains a largely unknown quantity.

“There is some concern about Bloomberg’s style,” said one Washington Republican involved in the process. “We don’t yet know if he plays well in the sandbox. We don’t know whether or not we can really rely on him to deliver the convention we want.” Advisers to Mr. Bloomberg declined to comment on any aspect of this story.

Still, Republicans say, a number of considerations have shifted the momentum towards New York. Although national Republicans dream of using a convention in New York to force the Democrats to invest time and resources defending a state that is usually considered a lock for the Democratic Presidential candidate, in reality conventions are media events that have a questionable effect on local voting patterns. More to the point is the message that a Republican convention in New York would send to a national audience. It would remind the country that Republicans led the city during the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks; for many national Republicans, President Bush’s defining moment came when he toured Ground Zero on the Friday after the attacks, throwing his arm around exhausted firefighters and offering a rousing tribute to recovery workers.

“If I’m Karl Rove, I just show that over and over again at the convention,” one person involved in the selection process said, referring to the President’s senior political adviser.

Powerful Symbol

Indeed, the symbolism of Mr. Bush transcending partisanship to return to the battlefields of New York is unlikely to be lost on Mr. Rove, who has been enormously successful at focusing the national electorate on Mr. Bush’s performance as a wartime President. Mr. Rove is expected to play a key role-if not the key role-in selecting the convention site, although officially the decision rests with the R.N.C.’s site-selection committee, which is scheduled to hold its next meetings within days.

A convention in New York would also highlight Republican gains in traditionally Democratic territory. Mr. Bloomberg’s ascension last year marked the first time since the consolidation of Greater New York in 1898 that the city has elected two consecutive Republicans as Mayor. And earlier this month, Republican Governor George Pataki decisively defeated his Democratic challenger to win a third term. Both men have made big inroads among Latino voters, who have been aggressively courted by Mr. Rove and Mr. Bush.

“It would be enormously symbolic if the Republican Party came to New York,” said Mr. Davis. “It shows that the G.O.P. is willing to fight anywhere. New York used to be off-limits territory, where Democrats didn’t have to spend to win. But no longer.”

“Bush would be coming into enemy territory at the peak of his popularity,” added Democratic consultant Richard Schrader. “It would make Bush look like he’s at the height of his power.”

All this is not to say that Tampa and New Orleans are out of the running. Tampa has several obvious advantages: It’s in First Brother Jeb Bush’s home state, and Florida is still viewed as a battleground state after the re-count fiasco of 2000.

Meanwhile, Republican officials are currently in New Orleans examining the facilities there. “New Orleans is still very much in play,” said Kevin Sheridan, a spokesman for the R.N.C.

Still, many Republicans say that New Orleans has been all but ruled out. They say that national G.O.P. officials continue to talk up that city’s chances in order to avoid offending Republican officials in Louisiana at a time when a Senate runoff battle is still raging between incumbent Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu and her Republican challenger, Suzanne Haik Terrell.

Politics aside, New York’s best shot at winning the convention may be to persuade Republicans that its bid is the superior one. To that end, city and state officials are offering their dramatic new plan to fuse the Garden with the Farley building to create a huge arena for both the convention and the media. Although the Garden has hosted three hugely successful conventions (all Democratic) in the past quarter-century, there’s a growing consensus that the Garden’s media facilities are too cramped. During the 1992 convention, at least one major network had to rent a nearby parking lot to use as a staging area.

City and state officials hope that offering the Farley building as a temporary headquarters for the national and international media will prove an attractive lure. The building, which was recently taken over by the state after a serious of tortuous negotiations with the U.S. Postal Service, would be refurbished to offer the media nearly a half-million square feet of space in a beautiful Beaux-Arts structure.

Should the national Republicans decide to come to New York, construction of a huge concrete bridge connecting the two buildings across Eighth Avenue would begin as soon as next spring. Such a structure would allow visitors to roam freely between the two buildings without undergoing constant and rigorous security checks.