Best Seat In The House

They're wined, they're dined, they never have to pick up the bill or crane for a better view - welcome to the life of a swing state delegate.

July 29, 2004|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

BOSTON - This morning, while other Democrats are snoozing through guest appearances by political B-listers at their delegation breakfasts, the folks from New Mexico say they expect to be receiving a visit from one of their party's biggest pop idols: John Edwards.

The vice presidential candidate's unplugged performance with the small Southwestern delegation, scheduled for the morning after his prime-time speech, is just one of the perks lavished on the state during the Democratic National Convention. These delegates - and their counterparts from other 2004 swing states - also get a hot hotel, a great spot on the convention floor, home-state speakers at the podium, coveted party invitations.

One of the goals of this convention is to motivate Democrats to deliver their states in November, and, to that end, the Democratic Party knows which delegates are the most crucial.

That quickly translates into a delegate hierarchy, with swing-staters at the top.

"If you don't win Pennsylvania, you can't become president of the United States of America," Martin Berger, 75, said from his seat on the noisy convention floor after watching two local congressmen speak from the podium. "Pennsylvanians get lots of exposure out here - they get to speak to the crowd from the stage and that gives us a chance to get up and yell."

That's exactly what the Democratic Party wants, arguing that the more fired-up the swing state delegates are, the harder they'll work for the ticket when they get home. If they leave this week with an even greater sense of their own importance, so much the better.

"The speakers look down from the stage and it looks like they're waving right to Ohio," says Ohio delegate Louis Escobar, 54. His hometown of Toledo sits inside the northwest Ohio area where both candidates of both major parties reportedly made more 2004 TV ad buys than anywhere else in the country; from his view of the stage he can tell they know what's at stake in his state.

"It's like they're talking to Ohio when they say, `Every vote counts,'" he says.

All the delegates here are the Democratic faithful, whether they hail from a blue state, a red state or a swing state that mixes the two (a purple state?). So the party isn't trying to punish any states, just heap extra attention on the crucial ones - closely contested states such as Michigan, Ohio, New Mexico, Iowa, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

"You're famous," a woman called across the floor to Fred Harris, a 73-year-old New Mexico delegate whose front-and-center seat was so close to the podium the camera kept including him in C-Span crowd shots. "They just cut to you - I saw you on TV!"

Harris stretched his arm toward the back wall - the far back wall - when asked where the state sat on the floor map four years ago. The state can only partly thank New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson - who is serving as the convention chairman - for the special treatment. The rest comes from its battleground status; the state delivered the Democrats their slimmest margin of victory in the 2000 election, with a win by just 365 votes.

Special notice begets more special notice, especially when the media is involved. Last night, network anchors weren't stalking the delegation from Maryland - a state that's a foregone conclusion for the Democrats - but they sure had located New Mexico.

"We're getting terrific attention," said Gilbert Lopez, 82, whose delegation has been so saturated by swing-state interest that when ABC anchor Peter Jennings conducted an interview right behind him, Lopez didn't even bother to turn around.

To understand how easy the convention goes for swing staters, consider the experience of delegates from Republican bastions. Folks from solidly GOP Montana are experiencing the joys of communal bathrooms, sandpaper towels and tiny beds in the dorm rooms the party booked for them at Northeastern University. The Oklahoma gang is all the way in Cambridge. And the Texas delegates? They're out by the airport.

It's enough to create delegate envy - though no one admits it.

"The Hilton at Logan Airport is very, very nice," insisted Lucendy Allen, 55, a delegate from Austin.

Still, she admits, her week might be more cushy if President Bush didn't call Texas home.

The swing state hotels, meanwhile, are at the hub of convention activity. The Michigan, New Mexico, West Virginia and Ohio delegations, for example, are at the Sheraton Boston, the convention headquarters hotel. On a recent day, delegates could get whiplash trying to track celebrities in the lobby - James Carville this way, actor James Cromwell, of HBO's Six Feet Under, that way.

It doesn't necessarily help to be from a solidly Democratic state, either, since the votes there are all but guaranteed and the party doesn't have to try extra hard to get out the vote. But Democrats bristle at the suggestion that all donkeys weren't created equal.

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