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CAMPAIGN '96

San Diego Boosters Buoyed by Reviews

Convention: A discouraging word never was heard from delegates, media. City believes it has respect it craved.

August 17, 1996|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — There is a sameness to the reviews about the performance and appearance of San Diego during the Republican National Convention that ended Thursday. Take a listen:

"San Diego is fantastic, I love it. Where y'all been hiding it all these years?" asked Hoyet Brown, car dealer and delegate from Enid, Okla.

"I love San Diego, I just wish I could see more of it," said Cokie Roberts of ABC News and National Public Radio.

"San Diego is fantastic: The water, the sun, the people, the dancing, the partying, everything," said Michael Neal, state trooper and delegate from Lewes, Del.

There's lots more. But you get the drift. In the view of a goodly number of the 30,000 delegates, reporters and guests drawn to the city's first national political convention, San Diego was nothing less than boffo.

Remember that San Diego is a city of paradox. So attractive, but so insecure. It is a place that smugly refers to itself as "America's Finest City," but worries incessantly that it can't get the attention and respect it craves.

For months, San Diego boosters have been on emotional tenterhooks in anticipation of how their beloved city would be received by conventioneers and the national media. With the convention now complete, these same boosters made no attempt Friday to contain their joy.

"I knew we were good, but this kind of response is unbelievable," said Ron Oliver, director of a business group called the Downtown Partnership. "Has this been good for San Diego? Yes, yes, yes--with capital letters!

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"It's everything we hoped for and more," said Carol Wallace, manager of the San Diego Convention Center.

Post-convention polling will have to put numbers on the sentiment, but the feeling in San Diego is that the convention has finally earned the city a place in the national consciousness. And the result will mean more tourists, more tourist dollars and more national political conventions, many believe.

"We're definitely in the loop now," said politically connected attorney Larry Marshall. "We're spending money hand over fist [to put on the convention], but it's gotten us in the loop."

The spending has yet to end. The San Diego Host Committee, which raised more than $11.2 million in private donations, is still seeking funds, including a request to the Convention Center board of directors for $1.2 million.

The promotional effort is wiping away the last traces of San Diego's reputation as "California's best-kept secret." Despite the efforts in recent decades by the city's Convention and Visitors Bureau, a large percentage of respondents continue to know little or nothing about the city.

A national poll conducted before the convention by San Diego-based Competitive Edge Research & Communication found that 40% of Americans had a favorable view of San Diego and only 8% had an unfavorable view. But a full 50% said they did not know enough about the city to venture an opinion.

"Clearly, San Diego presented itself as a blank slate to much of the American public prior to the convention," said Competitive Edge founder John Nienstedt.

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Even poll respondents who liked San Diego had a tendency to confuse it with other, better-known California locations. Asked to describe San Diego, some mentioned Hollywood, the Rose Bowl, earthquakes, cable cars, liberal politics and the gay-rights movement.

Before the convention, Jack Ford, the host committee's executive director, warned that San Diegans might be setting themselves up for heartache by hoping for oceans of positive media coverage from the convention.

Wise in the ways of the media from his days when his father, Gerald R. Ford, was president, Ford was quick to note that political writers can be a grumpy lot.

But he needn't have worried.

Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newsletter, reported that San Diego "has transformed itself into nothing less than an all-around playground. . . ," The Chicago Sun-Times said of San Diego's newly refurbished waterfront, "Sure, it's touristy, but San Diegans love it, and you will too."

USA Today broke the bad news to Chicago, where the Democrats will hold their convention: "No offense, Chicago, but Republicans may like their convention city more than the Democrats will yours."

And the New Orleans Times-Picayune, doubtless risking local wrath, noted, "Truly, San Diego is a beautiful, clean and, even New Orleans must admit, an interesting city."

Many of the papers sought out local angles to explain San Diego's charms.

The Tampa (Fla.) Tribune quoted a delegate from Tampa proclaiming that "This place beats Tampa, complete. San Diego has a Ph.D., and we're still in kindergarten."

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Reported the Des Moines Register: "San Diego is a beautiful city, and a bunch of Iowans have moved here to live."

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