WASHINGTON - The hotel they have been assigned is gleaming, with a sweeping waterfront view of Tampa Bay and mere minutes from the convention hall. The parties they will throw are already in demand. They are expected to get a prime spot on the floor of the convention, their faces on national television.
It’s a dramatic turn of fortune for a small, and at times dysfunctional, band of Massachusetts Republicans heading to Tampa this August for their party’s national convention. The traditional outcasts - power-challenged in their home state and out-of-step with many in the national Republican Party - are now being treated as the kings of the court, by virtue of their connection to presumptive nominee Mitt Romney, the Bay State’s former governor.
“From worst to first, from class clown to class president,’’ said Rob Gray, a Massachusetts-based Republican consultant. “That’s the story for the Massachusetts delegation this time around.’’
The last time the Republicans had a Massachusetts man atop the ballot was 1924, with former governor Calvin Coolidge.
“We haven’t been in this position for close to 100 years,’’ said Bob Maginn, chairman of the Massachusetts Republican Party.
He hopes the convention - along with Senator Scott Brown and several competitive congressional races - will help usher in a new era for Massachusetts Republicans on the national stage.
Traveling to Tampa will be 68 delegates from Massachusetts - 41 who will vote, and 27 who will be alternates. Their official duties include voting on the nominations for president and vice president, as well as the party platform.
But much of the time is spent schmoozing with party officials, lobbyists, and politicians - and heading to parties thrown all around town.
In conventions past, Bay State delegates often felt like the punchline to any number of political jokes. Once the Boston accent was detected, members would be asked about the likes of Edward M. Kennedy, Barney Frank, or Michael S. Dukakis. What’s it like living in a state that hasn’t voted for a Republican president since 1984 - or was the only state to vote for Democrat George McGovern in 1972?
“We were treated like sideshow freaks,’’ said state Senator Robert Hedlund, a Weymouth Republican who attended his first convention in 1988, where he protested nominee George H.W. Bush. “They look at you like you’re a different kind of animal. Which, in a way, we are. You’re either a crusader and you’re Horatio at the bridge - or you’re a squish.’’
Lack of respect showed up in a host of ways. There were no invitations for the choice parties - lavish affairs that vibrant delegations from such states as Texas and Louisiana are known to throw.
Hedlund said he once had to plead with a manager to let him into a club where former Van Halen frontman Sammy Hagar was playing (Hedlund said he was a state senator from Massachusetts; it turned out the manager was from Vermont and once lived in Cambridge).
In 2008, when the convention was in St. Paul, the Massachusetts delegates were placed in a hotel off the interstate in suburban Bloomington. For some, it meant a $40 cab ride to get to the convention site.
This year, the delegation will be staying at the Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel & Marina, which has a spa and a rooftop pool. The hotel is across the street from the convention site.
‘From worst to first, from class clown to class president. That’s the story.’
“It’s the best one, and it’s Romney’s hotel,’’ said Jody Dow, a Republican National committeewoman from Massachusetts. “We are absolutely thrilled.’’
Dow says the Massachusetts group may take up around 100 rooms. There are several parties in the works, including one thrown by the delegation and another for Massachusetts women.
In 2008, Romney dropped in on a basic breakfast. This year, the former governor’s attendance would be accompanied by Secret Service agents and significant buzz. State party officials are also hoping their event will include the vice presidential nominee.
But underlying the coronation of the favorite son is bubbling tension over who will get to go, and who will win the honor of being a delegate on the convention floor. At caucuses held over the weekend, a group of Ron Paul supporters defeated many of the candidates on Romney’s slate. Among those who lost were former lieutenant governor Kerry Healey, House minority leader Bradley H. Jones Jr., and former gubernatorial candidate Charles Baker.
The Paul supporters are bound by party rules to vote on the first ballot for Romney, who took over 70 percent of the vote in the Massachusetts primary. Party officials do not think it will take more than one vote for Romney, but Paul supporters can still cause trouble elsewhere.
It is already an embarrassment that Romney has been unable to secure delegate slots for his supporters.
Romney can still reward some of his supporters through 11 at-large spots left to be filled by the state party committee in June. But it means he may be forced to give out spots to those who lost their caucus votes, rather than doling those positions out to other loyal foot soldiers, donors, or party officials.
Romney also has wide discretion to get his loyalists some of the cherished floor passes at the convention, even if they are not voting delegates.
Traditionally, delegates from the home state of the candidate are seated in front of the stage, and often they cast the vote - in this case, vote number 1,144 - to secure the nomination.
“He’s the big figure, and we’re the Massachusetts people - who got a break for a change,’’ said Dow. “This should be fun.’’Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.