TAMPA — It might be the most Republican spot in all of Tampa, a dingy stretch of sidewalk where free-market ideals come to life. Plucky entrepreneurs. Bold, transformative notions.
To get there, you have to walk right out of the Republican convention.
Past the metal detectors and the bored khaki-clad cops and the little knot of National Guardsmen crowded under a shade tree. Beyond the last concrete barrier.
There — in the first few feet of the outside world — two women are trying to move Mitt Romney buttons that just won’t sell.
“This one’s unpopular: his face. His face is flat-out unpopular. I have not sold one of these," said Mia Hall of Sarasota, Fla. She was pointing to a three-inch-wide campaign button that featured a smiling photo of Romney, the Republican nominee, and the words “Twenty Twelve.”
Instead, her customers had been buying another $5 button that said,“Mitt Happens.” Others had scanned her button board, looking for a different face entirely.
“The ladies are looking: ‘Anything with [Paul] Ryan’s face, please!” Hall said.
On Thursday, Hall shared her little stretch of sidewalk with three other button sellers, a man selling a Dr. Seuss parody called “The Cat and the Mitt,” and Ron Paul supporters selling shirts with an image of the Alamo on them. Another man who buttonholed passersby for Paul. Another who held up a sign denouncing all political parties.
“We were out for 12 hours here yesterday,” said Hall’s partner, Amanda Creighton, 27, wearing a red dress and glittery makeup.
“We changed our heels three times,” Hall said.
The Republican convention shut down a vast stretch of Tampa’s downtown and allowed pedestrians just one way in. This was it. People streamed past this busy street corner, past a dump truck parked as a barricade across the street, and away toward the metal detectors.
This choke-point drew vendors and politicians all week. On Wednesday, a presidential candidate named Vermin Supreme positioned himself there with a rubber boot on his head. He shouted at passersby that, as president, he would fully fund time-travel research, then send himself back in time to kill “baby Hitler.”
“With my bare hands!” he shouted.
On Thursday, Jason Bartch, 39, positioned himself on the same sidewalk with a big multicolored sign attacking the Republican National Committee. Bartch, a supporter of Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.), was firing little bursts of conversation at passing delegates. They, in turn, sought not to make eye contact.
“Ron Paul. Ronald Paul. . . . Doesn’t tell you what you’re supposed to think. . . . I love that dress. You make all the difference in the world. . . . Educate yourself. Don’t compromise that integrity. It’s yours.”
After a while, Bartch sat down to rest. “There are so many good American people,” he said, explaining why he’d come all the way down from New York to be ignored.
A little further down the sidewalk, one woman was hawking hot-selling buttons that said “Show 44 The Door,” and showed a boot kicking President Obama in the rear end.
And two other button sellers were trying to navigate the deep divide between Paul supporters and the rest of the party. They learned that you couldn’t display Paul and Romney buttons at once: Both sides would be so offended that you’d never get their $5.
But the free market worked.
Kenni Anderson, 31, and Shelley Aldred, 47, came up with a way to make money from both camps. Most of the time, they displayed all Romney buttons. The worst-seller was, again, a big picture of Romney’s face.
But they kept a practiced eye out for Paul fans.
“You can tell,” Anderson said. Soon, a crowd of delegates walked up with thick beards, cowboy hats and shirts with slogans about Texas.
“Ron Paul,” Anderson said under her breath, nudging Aldred. “Ron Paul.” They flipped their display boards around, to reveal a store of Paul buttons hidden on the back.