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October 2, 2014

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Politics:

When ‘anything goes’ isn’t necessarily one of Las Vegas’ assets

On a recent afternoon, in her airy office above downtown, Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman delivered an ode to Las Vegas: its weather, parks, dining, shopping, arts scene, airport, medical facilities.

Sin, she added almost as an aside, can be found anywhere in the world. Compare that to the city’s speedy Internet service!

For as long as modern memory, this sprung-from-the-desert metropolis has been defined by its lascivious reputation, a source of both immense commercial profit and perpetual civic vexation.

Indeed, although Las Vegas has been the country’s No. 1 convention destination for 20 years running, there is one gathering the city has never hosted: a national political convention.

Nor, for that matter, has Nevada ever placed a candidate on the ticket of either major political party.

Now Las Vegas has emerged as one of six finalists to hold the 2016 Republican National Convention and, more, appears to be one of two front-runners, alongside buttoned-down Dallas. The result is a mix of pride, competitive esprit and defensiveness in Nevada and, for the GOP, a quandary as it weighs the city’s assets against any potential unseemliness that could tarnish the party’s White House nominee.

“In spite of ‘family-friendly’ outreach in the past decade, Las Vegas remains a metaphor for all things decadent,” a group of social conservative leaders wrote in a letter sent last month to Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee. The letter noted that a review of the local phone book counted 64 pages of escort services.

“At a time when the base needs to be motivated, this is not time to mute or offend them in any way,” the letter said.

The priorities in picking a convention site, Priebus has said, are prosaic and the sort Goodman emphasized: the iron-clad ability to raise about $60 million, to provide a secure setting and to reliably transport and comfortably house, in close proximity, tens of thousands of party faithful, dignitaries, reporters and assorted hangers-on. The last two GOP convention sites, Minneapolis-St. Paul and Tampa, were judged failures on several of those counts.

“The more spread out you are, the less fun the convention experience,” said Ron Kaufman, a veteran Republican strategist and member of the party’s governing body. The less fun delegates have, he continued, the less enthusiasm they show on the convention floor, which makes for less compelling TV viewing — the whole point of a convention these days.

It is, however, impossible to divorce political considerations from an inherently political process. The other finalists are Cincinnati, Cleveland, Denver and Kansas City, Mo. A decision is expected in the late summer or fall.

Las Vegas and Dallas, which hosted the 1984 Republican convention, have benefits the others lack, most notably abundant hotel space and a bevy of rich donors who could guarantee the event’s financial success — no small consideration given the last-minute fundraising scramble that attended previous conventions.

Facing the Strip from the palm-lined driveway of the city’s convention center, the skyline is dominated by the twin towers of Steve Wynn’s luxe gaming palaces and the high-rise Venetian and Palazzo resorts, Sheldon Adelson’s monuments to epic indulgence. Both men are major Republican givers whose desire to lure the convention is no small consideration, according to some involved in the selection process.

There are practical reasons to pick Las Vegas. Boosters note the city hosted more than 22,000 conventions last year, drawing 5.1 million delegates who helped fill more than 150,000 hotel rooms, the most of any American city.

“Tourism and conventions. That’s what we do,” Goodman said in her seventh-floor office, as classical music played softly in the background. She urged a look out the huge glass windows, to a view of the Strip.

“What do you see when you look up high?” she asked. A cloudless blue sky. And the temperature? A pleasant 75 degrees. “Magnificent,” the mayor declared, and something to consider after a hurricane forced Republicans to curtail their last convention in Florida.

“We don’t have earthquakes — we’ve had some small trembles — but we really are pretty free of natural disasters,” Goodman said, never mentioning the blast-furnace temperatures that arrive with summer, when the convention would be held.

More problematic, though, is the city’s overtly sexual atmosphere. What other community puts bare body parts on such vivid, stories-high display, has distinctive billboards — “Hot Babes To You” — in constant circulation on the main drag, or newspapers boxes stuffed to overflowing with free fliers showing women in various states of undress?

There is more to the city than its sybaritic stereotype would have some believe, especially after moguls like Wynn and Adelson spent millions to dot the Strip with five-star restaurants, fill their casinos with major works of art, and lure Broadway shows and A-list performers to their plush concert arenas.

“I think there is a dated stigma,” said Billy Vassiliadis, the chief executive of R&R Partners, Las Vegas’ pre-eminent marketing and public affairs firm. “We’ve had a phenomenal transformation.”

Still, even if Las Vegas is much more than naughtiness, “there’s a significant number of people who come looking for that,” said Michael Green, a local historian and political scientist who grew up in the city. “And Las Vegas wants their money.”

Competitors, too, are eager to capitalize on the anything-goes image.

“They’ll have to figure out how to address it. That’s not a challenge for us at all,” Phillip Jones, head of the Dallas Convention & Visitors Bureau, told the Dallas Morning News. “The Dallas message and the Dallas brand — free-market capitalism, entrepreneurial spirit, optimism, opportunity, low taxes, low regulation — fits very well with the Republicans’ brand.”

Asked later about Jones’ remark, a bureau spokesman said, “The reporter gave more weight to the comment than was intended.” But Jones merely echoed what others, including some of Las Vegas’s most ardent supporters, have said.

Of course, conventioneers have been behaving badly as long as there have been conventions. It’s easy to overstate the import of locale, to say nothing of the personal conduct of delegates.

Green, who wrote a book on the 1860 presidential campaign, notes the mayor of Chicago ordered the city’s brothels raided as the Republican convention opened, to the consternation of Abraham Lincoln supporters, who worried delegates would take their frustration out on Illinois’ home-state candidate.

He won the nomination — and the White House — anyway.

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