LAS VEGAS — On a recent afternoon, in her airy office above downtown, 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.
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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 button-down Dallas. The result is a mix of pride, competitive esprit and defensiveness here 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 ironclad ability to raise about $60 million, to provide a secure setting and to reliably transport and comfortably house, in 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.
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 hotel-casinos, 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.
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?
“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.”