N.J. Republicans sitting pretty in Tampa

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) works with a staffer to prepare for the Republican National Convention at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) works with a staffer to prepare for the Republican National Convention at the Tampa Bay Times Forum. (CHIP SOMODEVILLA / Getty)
Posted: August 28, 2012

TAMPA - New Jersey arrived in Florida on Sunday, and it was immediately clear this wasn't Minnesota.

And not just because of the tropical storm looming off the coast. On a day when sandbags were piled outside the hotel housing the California delegation, and Red Cross volunteers were heading for the Gulf Coast from as far away as Philadelphia, the New Jersey Republicans here for the GOP convention that opens Monday were more numerous, more charged up, and more prominent than those who went to the 2008 Republican convention in Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Bill Palatucci, the state's Republican national committeeman and Gov. Christie's confidant, said that the national party initially told him that 125 rooms would be reserved for the New Jersey delegation in a hotel shared with another state. After all, that's what New Jersey needed in 2008.

"We said: 'Have you heard of Chris Christie? Are you nuts?' " Palatucci recounted Sunday.

The surging national prominence of the governor (who will deliver the keynote address Tuesday), coupled with his early endorsement of Mitt Romney, helped land New Jersey not just a hotel to itself on the beach in nearby St. Petersburg but a prime spot on the floor of the convention hall.

During a welcome reception at the Sirata Beach Resort on Sunday night, Christie stood with his wife and elder daughter before a thrilled crowd of New Jerseyans. He credited New Jersey's newfound prominence to his exhortation last year that the state's county chairs wait for him before endorsing anyone in the GOP presidential primary.

"Let's all [endorse] together, and if we do, we're going to wind up reaping some benefits from it," Christie remembered saying.

"Well, let's see. How did we do? Well, we're front and center at the convention, and I'm giving the keynote speech. So there's something great about being unified."

Christie also built up some expectations for his speech.

"You don't know what's going to happen when I burst out of that gate at 10:30 on Tuesday night. . . . We're going to put on a great show for the American people," Christie said to cheers.

Pennsylvania Republicans will not have the opportunity to put on the same kind of show. Gov. Corbett, whose approval rating is below 40 percent, does not have a speaking slot at the convention as of yet.

Pennsylvania has an entourage of about 500, including 72 delegates, a like number of alternates, and public officials, party donors, lobbyists, and political consultants - basically a big chunk of the GOP elite in the state.

Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley is here, as is Sen. Pat Toomey and the state's GOP members of the House. Aside from the delegation breakfasts at the headquarters hotel, the DoubleTree Westshore, and convention sessions, they will mostly occupy themselves with receptions all over town; a few will do fund-raising.

Pennsylvania Republican Chairman Rob Gleason of Johnstown said this was the largest crowd to attend a GOP convention from the state.

"People are interested, thinking that this race looks winnable for us," Gleason said. "That's infectious. People want to be on the train."

The threat of Tropical Storm Isaac canceled most convention events for Monday, but beyond wind, light rain, and bumpy flights, the weather had not curtailed the plans of delegates in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

"They brought me down here specifically . . . just to make sure if there are any idiots on the beach I'd tell them to 'get the hell off the beach,' " Christie said, reprising his famous line last year from the lead-up to Hurricane Irene. "Some lines are so good they never go away."

New Jersey brought 50 official delegates, 47 alternates, and 400 "honorary" delegates who paid the state GOP to be a part of the experience.

Some of those delegates are representatives from out-of-state corporations, according to Steve Some, a Republican lobbyist. He said they wanted to stay at the hotel to mingle with delegates from New Jersey, which is viewed as more business-friendly under Christie.

Some's firm, Capital Public Affairs, distributed buttons reading, "Chris Christie - America's Governor."

"Everywhere you go, people ask you about him," Some said. "Some people can't even name the governor of their own state, but they know Chris Christie."

The governor's impact could turn blue New Jersey red, attendees argued.

"He's the most dynamic person we've seen in New Jersey in at least 30 years," said Tom Booth, Camden County Republican chairman. "He's such a powerful person, he can change the [political] direction of the state for the next 30 years."

The convention is not without intrigue. Only one of its six Republican congressional representatives - Chris Smith - is in attendance.

When Christie delivers the keynote speech Tuesday, he will be the first New Jersey Republican in that role since 1988, when Gov. Thomas H. Kean - Christie's political mentor - took the stage.

Kean, sporting a green blazer at Sunday night's welcome reception, said all New Jerseyans, even Democrats, should be proud of Christie's moment in the Florida sun. He recalled that Democratic Sen. Bill Bradley publicly congratulated him on his keynote speech.

That year was also "the last time we had good seats and a decent hotel," Kean said.

Kean first met a 14-year-old Christie when the boy knocked on his front door to ask him about politics.

Thirty-five years later, Kean was interviewed for a video that will air before Christie's keynote. And he thinks Christie is more in demand as a speaker and fund-raiser than any Republican in the country beyond Romney.

"I'm a pretty proud guy right now," Kean said.

Contact Matt Katz at 609-217-8355 or mkatz@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @mattkatz00. Read his blog, "Christie Chronicles," at www.philly.com/christiechronicles

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