updated 12/22/2003 12:10:51 PM ET 2003-12-22T17:10:51

Another countdown will begin after the ball drops in Times Square on New Year’s Eve: eight months to go until the 2004 Republican convention, the amount of time Bill Harris has to plan a party for 50,000 guests in a city dominated by Democrats, targeted by protesters and wary of post-Sept. 11 terror.

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Harris, an Alabaman who has worked on every GOP convention since 1972, wants to use the city’s landmarks and diversity to promote the party’s message and keep people interested enough to tune into the four-day event, which ends with President Bush’s nomination for a second term.

“New York is a very strong city because it draws strength from a lot of different cultures,” Harris, chief executive officer and master planner of the Aug. 30-Sept. 2 gathering at Madison Square Garden, told The Associated Press in an interview. “To the extent that you can demonstrate this strength of many cultures, we want to do that.”

Harris, who splits his time between New York and his home outside Washington, is just beginning to explore the city and its offerings outside the Garden, in midtown Manhattan. Events are being considered for the Brooklyn Bridge, Central Park, the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building.

Icons of American values
Harris said he wants to use those icons as symbols of New York’s “contribution to American values.” He’s also interested in featuring ethnic communities in the five boroughs, and has not ruled out using locations in New Jersey and on Long Island as potential event sites.

“All of the neighborhoods — they’re like cultural centers for a variety of ethnic groups, and Bush is determined to compete in all markets,” said David Norcross, chairman of the convention’s Committee on Arrangements. “New York gives us a great backdrop for that.”

The convention is also breaking new ground by considering a plan for Bush to accept the nomination away from the Garden, which planners say is limited by size. The arena seats 19,500 people, while Yankee Stadium — one alternative being examined — accommodates more than 55,000.

Protest groups say they intend to disrupt the party’s events with demonstrations that will scold the administration for its policies on the Iraq war to funding for AIDS research.

Some Democrats have suggested that Republicans secretly want the protests in hopes that images of angry disruptions will turn off Americans and create sympathy for Bush.

Harris rejects those claims.

“Do I want protests? No, I don’t,” he said. “But this is America. This is New York. People are going to express their opinions, and they’ve got a right to do that.”

On the other hand, the convention is getting unusual financial support from local and state Democrats, who say they’re endorsing economics, not politics.

Much of the $64 million raised to date comes from Democrats, who outnumber Republicans 5-1 in New York City. The convention is expected to generate as much as $260 million in revenue to the city.

'Superficial identity'
Two Democratic City Council members oppose the convention, denouncing Bush’s “superficial identity with urban America.”

“They want to appear without substance, to give the impression of a commitment,” said Bill Perkins, who represents Harlem. “Our city needs more than a temporary infusion of economic activity. It needs sustained commitment to schools, housing and urban health issues.”

Democrats and relatives of those killed in the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center have also criticized Republicans for staging the gathering so close to the third anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 disaster. Bush’s acceptance speech comes little more than a week before the memorial observance.

Harris promised that no official convention events will be held at the trade center site. But he noted that many delegates and other visitors will likely want to visit the area.

The 2004 conventions — Democrats meet in Boston from July 26-29 — are the first presidential nominations to take place since the attacks. GOP planners haven’t discussed security details, and Harris said only that federal and local law enforcement will “have plans well in place so we can have a safe and orderly convention.”

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