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A long time between political conventions

BALTIMORE WAS the birthplace of presidential nominating conventions and once reigned as queen city of these quadrennial conclaves, being host to them repeatedly during the 19th century and even once early in the 20th century. Will she ever be able to regain her crown?

Not anytime soon, according to those knowledgeable about conventions. It's a question of beds, heads and behinds - or hotel rooms, expected attendance, and convention-hall seating capacity.

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"We get stopped at the basics right from the start," says Carroll R. Armstrong, president and chief executive officer of the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association.

Baltimore recently landed the prestigious, annual convention of the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine - the Shriners - which will bring about 30,000 fez-wearing and free-spending conventioneers to the city in 2005. That is an impressive coup in the convention world, but it is nowhere near the horde that a national political convention would generate.

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An estimated 45,000 people - delegates, politicos and members of the press - packed into Philadelphia for last week's Republican National Convention, and about the same number are expected at the Democratic Convention in Los Angeles from Aug. 14 to 17.

The political parties require a would-be convention city to have 20,000 "reasonably priced" hotel rooms available within relatively close proximity to the meeting hall, as well as a 20,000-seat facility to house the convention, Armstrong says.

"We have, probably in the entire state - if you count every bed and breakfast - perhaps 20,000 to 22,000 hotel rooms," Armstrong says, and although the Baltimore Convention Center was expanded substantially three years ago, it is not the sort of place where the political parties like to meet these days.

"They have a recent history of going to arena-type facilities, which are already wired for TV, have escalated seating, with 20,000 or more seats, and space to create media boxes for TV," Armstrong says.

The Baltimore Arena would not do.

The price tag for a presidential nominating convention is in the $60 million range, Armstrong adds, and any city that gets into the bidding war for one has to offer to subsidize a lot of the costs.

The New York Times reported that Philadelphia and Los Angeles promised to raise $35 million to $50 million in local money to bankroll such convention services as transportation, festive bunting and local enhancements - and both cities had a rough time coming up with the cash.

Cities that compete for a presidential nominating convention do so because of estimated economic benefits of $100 million-plus in convention-related spending, according to the Times, in addition to the incalculable prestige that hosting a convention ostensibly brings.

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The media coverage of the host city, especially colorful feature stories that fill in the dull spaces during this era's dull conventions, is "the real value," Armstrong says. "It isn't the economic impact they create. It's the coverage you get out of them." Such publicity can have long-term, positive impact on future convention business.

Andrew Zimbalist, a Smith College economist best known for questioning the purported economic benefits derived from professional sports teams, scoffs at the notion that a presidential convention brings in enough money or recognition to warrant its cost.

Zimbalist told the Times: "Does the convention make people say, 'Gee, I didn't know Los Angeles was there, maybe I'll go visit?' "

And the publicity factor "could cut both ways," notes Armstrong. "It could be good or not so good."

If things go disastrously wrong, such as in Chicago in 1968, a city might take years to live it down. After the "police riot" at the Democratic gathering that year, Chicago didn't get another presidential nominating convention for nearly 30 years.

It has been 88 years since Baltimore was the host of a presidential nominating convention - the 1912 Democratic conclave that met in the 5th Regiment Armory and chose Woodrow Wilson, a Johns Hopkins-trained Ph.D., to be the nominee.

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Armstrong says Baltimore's failure to secure a convention in the intervening years is largely attributable to the same factors that prevent it from doing so now: lack of hotel rooms and adequate meeting space.

Politics also surely played a role. In the mid-19th century, when Baltimore was the host of a dozen presidential conventions - from 1831, when the first was held, to 1872 - Maryland was a more important political player.

"It was a meeting ground between the sections," says Robert J. Brugger of the Johns Hopkins University Press and author of "Maryland: A Middle Temperament."

"It [Baltimore] had this character of being comparatively comfortable for both sides, in terms of the conflict over slavery.

"Slave-holding Southerners did not have to go to New York, and Yankees didn't have to go to the South and have it shoved in their face. There were a lot of free blacks in Maryland as well, and Maryland never produced a pro-slavery argument. And it had more convenient transportation, on land and water."

Baltimore's harbor had ample passenger service, and the city was the hub of one of the country's greatest railroad systems, making travel here easy in those days of muddy, inadequate roads. And we had impressive hotels and a renowned cuisine.

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We retained the cuisine but lost political influence. In 1912, after 40 years without a presidential convention, the administration of Mayor James H. Preston - and the owners of The Sun - had to lobby hard to persuade the Democrats to meet here. (Preston harbored vice presidential ambitions.)

The convention turned out to be a fiercely fought, 46-ballot battle for the nomination, waged in the poorly ventilated armory during a withering heat wave. Although it is said the elephant never forgets, the Democratic donkey also has a long memory.

Those who suffered through the blistering Baltimore convention - among them a young state senator from New York named Franklin D. Roosevelt - were not inclined to return to this city in the summer. (Similarly, the 1924 Democratic convention in New York was the longest in history, lasting 103 ballots. The Democrats didn't return to Manhattan until 1976.)

The obstacles to capturing a presidential convention for Baltimore could be overcome - as they were in 1912. Philadelphia, which hadn't had a presidential convention since 1948, undertook a crash program to build hotel rooms and obtained a $20 million letter of credit to help fund its bid.

Baltimore might re-enter the presidential convention contests "if the local political structure decides that it's something they want to go after," says Armstrong.

Given the costs of what would have to be done, however, that seems unlikely in the near future.

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Neil A. Grauer is a Baltimore writer.


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