Republicans are counting on a glitch-free convention to help lift the party's sagging morale and boost John McCain's presidential prospects when they assemble in this picturesque city on the Mississippi River in six weeks.
Organizers began construction Monday at the Xcel Energy Center, home to the Minnesota Wild NHL hockey franchise, to host 4,600 delegates and alternates and thousands more guests and media Sept. 1-4. Dozens of construction workers began unscrewing seats and unloading equipment from trucks, making room for the stage where McCain will deliver his acceptance speech. The Republican Party will have exclusive access to the arena through the convention.
The GOP sessions get under way just four days after Democrats conclude their own convention in Denver; never before have the two parties' events been scheduled so late in the summer, and so close together.
McCain strategists believe the timing could work to their advantage, potentially blunting the post-Denver "bounce" Barack Obama should receive as a newly minted nominee. And even though Obama now leads McCain by double digits in most Minnesota polls, his strategists hope a successful convention could help the Arizona senator's chances of winning the state.
Enthusiasm gap between events
Elected officials of both parties have taken a leadership role.
Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, thought to be on McCain's short list of potential running mates, has raised funds for the convention. The Democratic mayors of the liberal-leaning Twin Cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul have done so as well, eager for the exposure such high-profile gatherings often generate.
The cities last hosted a national political convention in 1892, when President Benjamin Harrison, a Republican, was nominated to serve a second term. (He lost his re-election bid.)
This year, Republicans remain acutely mindful of the challenge they face: How best to showcase McCain, an unpopular party's aging, less-than telegenic standard-bearer, against Obama's soaring oratory and historic status as a major party's first black nominee.
"I don't know that I've been to a convention that hasn't had a lot of excitement and energy," GOP convention president Maria Cino said. "Sen. McCain will talk about issues that are important to people, and will talk specifically, not generally, about what he believes in and why he will be the next president of the United States."
Even with Obama planning to deliver his convention speech at a football stadium filled with 75,000 supporters, Cino resisted the notion that the GOP convention might risk appearing too traditional by comparison. She noted the technological innovations the convention was pursuing, including a YouTube video contest, and said voter attention would quickly shift to St. Paul regardless.
"Our convention starts Monday and really, with all due respect, we are front and center, we take the stage," Cino said.
Still, the enthusiasm gap between the two events is already noticeable.
Democrats have already signed up 22,000 volunteers for their convention, while the St. Paul gathering has attracted just 10,000. GOP organizers insist they have work for only 10,000 volunteers and are more than happy to stick with that number.
Then there's the problem of President Bush, whose popularity, slipping for months, has tanked along with the flagging economy. The convention Web site bears little mention of the president's name; its home page quotes McCain saying he is proud to be nominated by "the party of Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan."
Bush is scheduled to speak to the convention on Monday, hours after a major anti-war protest march that could draw as many as 50,000 people to St. Paul's streets. Former Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards is expected to address another protest that day sponsored by the Service Employees International Union.
Working to throw a great convention
The city's Democratic mayor, Chris Coleman, is an Obama supporter whose wife, daughter and mother-in-law will participate in the anti-war march. But Coleman said his political leanings won't affect his efforts to help facilitate a smooth convention.
"I have no interest in getting John McCain elected president, and the Republican Party has not been particularly helpful to cities across this country," Coleman said. "But as a community we made a decision to move forward and attract one of the national conventions, and we just rolled up our sleeves and went to work to throw the best convention possible."
Indeed, both parties were interested in St. Paul's bid but Republicans moved more quickly and grabbed it first. And their convention planning so far been a model of efficiency and organization while Democrats in Denver have wrestled with logistical complications and fundraising woes.
The GOP host committee has met all of its fundraising benchmarks and is well on its way to meeting its goal of $58 million. At least 60 percent of the corporate money raised for the event has come from businesses headquartered in the area, including 3M, Best Buy and Northwest Airlines.
"They realize it's a great showcase for them," host committee CEO Jeff Larson said. "We're going to make sure our donors get in front of all the right people and the media, to get plenty of exposure."
Larson is partner in FLS Connect, a national Republican telemarketing firm that was paid over $21 million by the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign in 2004. Until recently, FLS was affiliated with the DCI Group, a major Washington-based consultancy that caused headaches for the McCain campaign earlier this spring.
In May, the campaign's key convention liaison, DCI founder Doug Goodyear, resigned his post after it was disclosed the firm had been hired to improve the image of Myanmar's military junta. Shortly thereafter, the McCain campaign called on all employees to disclose past lobbying ties.