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Bound for Glory?

The city: San Diego sees the Republican convention as a golden opportunity to boost its image and separate itself from the metropolis to the north in the national mind's eye.

August 09, 1996|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — Twenty-four years after they were first invited, the VIPs whom official San Diego has been longing to entertain and impress are coming to dinner, breakfast, lunch and more.

The guests are finally arriving in this sun-blessed but often-ignored corner of the country: the delegates, the officeholders, the operatives, the payrollers, the anchorpeople, the journalists, the capital-chat squads from television, the lobbyists, the lawyers, the corporate executives, the Beltway crowd.

"We're ready, we're eager, we're pumped," says Carol Wallace, manager of the San Diego Convention Center, where the four-day Republican National Convention opens Monday.

This was supposed to happen back in 1972, before a president named Richard Nixon and a Republican National Committee chairman named Bob Dole decided San Diego wasn't yet ready for the big show. Six weeks before the opening gavel, the GOP convention was switched from untested San Diego to old reliable Miami.

A quarter-century of hurt feelings over that insult and other slights --"branch-office city," "cultural cul-de-sac," Navy base with a zoo attached--have worked up a powerful craving for respect.

To a degree that residents of more worldly wise cities might find difficult to comprehend, the 1996 convention, so ardently sought by San Diego civic and political leaders, has put the city's delicate self-image at risk.

"What we're seeing is San Diego's inferiority complex in full display," says Steve Erie, professor of political science at UC San Diego. "That plus a tremendous attempt at spin control to make sure reporters tell the 'right' story about San Diego."

The fervor for approval is so palpable that Logan Jenkins, columnist for the North County Times, calls the convention a "psycho-civic" event.

"Even a lot of people in California don't realize we've been the sixth-largest city in the nation for a long time," complains Mayor Susan Golding.

The convention is seen by many as a golden opportunity for San Diego to separate itself from the metropolis to the north in the national mind's eye.

"Maybe people will finally realize that San Diegans don't commute to work in Los Angeles and we're not a suburb of Los Angeles," says Marty Levin, anchor at KNSD-TV, the NBC affiliate.

A century after Los Angeles "stole" the railroad line that was supposed to come to San Diego, the "L-word" and the "A-word" still rile locals.

Witness the exasperated reaction of Roger Hedgecock, San Diego's defrocked mayor-turned-radio-talk-show host, when he learned that the CBS crew covering the convention had not hired a San Diego caterer.

"CBS went to L.A. to hire a caterer?" Hedgecock told his devoted audience from his broadcast booth outside the hall where the Republicans were hashing the platform. "I'm going to have to mention that a few times."

Truth be told, this is not San Diego's biggest convention. Baptist and Alcoholics Anonymous conventions last year brought more people. But the Republicans are bringing something more important than numbers: reporters and television cameras.

"This is our first chance to show our stuff," says Tom Blair, editor of San Diego Magazine. "I think we have it, but haven't had a chance to show it."

Potholes have been filled. Spiffy new signs were erected in the Gaslamp Quarter, the downtown restaurant and curio shop district. Trees and bushes have been planted; coats of paint slapped on aging building fronts.

Cabdrivers were ordered to take "goodwill ambassador" classes, with restaurants providing free food and coffee as a reward, on the theory that a well-fed cabby is a visitor-friendly cabby.

A group of lawyers is prepared to offer help to journalists who get in trouble pursuing the news. If that fails, the 73-year-old "King" Stahlman, the city's premier bail bondsman, is ready to ply his trade.

"I'll even bail out Pat Buchanan if he gets arrested for shooting his mouth off," Stahlman quips.

The people who for decades have roamed Lindbergh Field, the city's airport, seeking donations for various causes, have been herded off to a designated soliciting spot, lest they be a nuisance. The Port District also got a court order to stop the anti-illegal immigration group, the Border Posse, from searching the airport for suspected illegal immigrants.

Rumors persist among homeless activists that City Hall has secretly ordered the homeless swept from city streets. City Manager Jack McGrory dismisses that notion as "convention city paranoia."

Among boosters involved with convention planning, the watchword has been "more": more money raised from corporations ($12 million and rising), more parties (at least 1,100, up from 800 at Houston in 1992), more goodies in the "corporate sponsor gift bag" being given to delegates and reporters than at any previous convention.

But for convention-related largess, it probably will be hard to beat the invitation-only bay-front party being thrown for visiting journalists by the San Diego Union-Tribune.

The extravaganza will be topped by fireworks by Grucci, creators of the centennial show above the Brooklyn Bridge and the fireworks at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Organizers are touting the fireworks as the biggest ever west of the Mississippi. Even in fireworks, San Diego does not want to be thought of as second best to Los Angeles.

The food will be prepared by 32 chefs; the wine and beer will come from 41 vineyards and brewers. All of which will be overseen by world-famous chef Wolfgang Puck.

Who will be coming down from . . . L.A.

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