[Have escaped the belly of the beast. Have car. Have half a tank of gas. Am cruising around Tampa. May make a run for Key West. Material below cross-posted from the 2012 election Live Blog.]

8 a.m.

Picking up on Laura Vozzella’s harrowing wee-hours dispatch about the Purple Bus Line of Doom: This Republican convention does have, like any convention, a suffocating command-and-control quality that invites such adjectives as “Stalinist.”

The obvious comparison is that one spends a lot of time standing in lines, like a Muscovite back in the day waiting and waiting for the chance to buy a few beets. To be fair, the security screeners are very efficient – they can wand a beeping reporter in less than 5 seconds – but the profusion of checkpoints and credentials checks carries with it an inevitable psychological effect. We learn that this is not a land of freedom.

Exits are blocked. You can’t even walk down the waterfront without running into a barrier. Message: You can’t go that way.

And it’s not a free-market economy, at least within the perimeter. At the official Romney-Ryan store in the Tampa Bay Times Forum, an adult-sized T-shirt costs $30. Or you can drop $5 on a bumper sticker or $40 on an iPhone case. Not cheap. They can make this stuff in China for about a quarter of that. But see, it’s not a normal purchase: It’s part of a cause. The purchases are officially and legally a contribution (according to a sign at the register) to “Romney Victory, Inc.” And by the way, you have to give your name and address when you buy something – it’s federal law.

A cup of coffee in the convention center will set you back $2.75. The convention center itself will deliver a jumbo pot of coffee for a rumored price of $50. Or you can find the coffee stand on the third level where they’re giving it away for free, and good stuff at that. There are basically two prices on everything within the security zone: Overpriced and free.

The layers of the security onion are deep. Never mind the $50 million given by the federal government to the city of Tampa to bring in police and hire new uniforms and mountain bikes and, who knows, helicopters and submarines. The Secret Service is in charge of “the Perimeter” and there are other agencies and the National Guard on hand, so you really can’t find a water fountain without passing someone who looks like he’s ready to fight an invasion of giant spiders.

10 a.m.

Sun’s out, and Camp Romneyville is drying out. It’s been a soggy week in the mulched parking lot next to the almost prehistoric Army Navy Surplus Market on Tampa street, a landmark that’s been in business since long before they put in the I-275 freeway nearby.

A smattering of cops on bikes circle in an adjacent paved lot. A few protesters and campers sit on a curb in the shade of a live oak. There’ve been marches from here, but at the moment everything has ground to a halt. There were more people at the beginning of the week, despite the rain and wind.

“This is needed to provide some democracy within the police state they’ve created here,” said Amos Miers, 35, one of the activists keeping an eye on things and making sure the protesters and police maintain their so-far pacific relationship. He’s a graphic designer who lives in Tampa. He trained as an architect but has seen the profession hit hard times with the economic downturn. His house is under foreclosure, he said. Now he’s with a group called Resist RNC. It’s in alliance, he said, with the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign.

A couple of months ago the activists signed a contract with the Army Surplus store’s owner to use the parking lot as a camp. Now there are a couple of dozen tents, plus two old school buses with a tarp stretched between them. One bus is a kitchen, the other a radio broadcast studio. There are portable toilets and ice machines.

Occasionally the police “test” the protesters, Miers said. They will attempt to walk onto the camp, and the protesters will tell the authorities that it’s private property.

“They want to see how we operate. They want to see who our leaders are,” Miers said.

But there have been no serious clashes, he said.

“The whole point is to maintain discipline and order so we can get the message out. We want mainstream America to envision themselves in the movement.”

The Army Navy surplus store opened as usual at 10 a.m. It’s crammed with gear of every imaginable variety. It’s biker heaven. The man behind the counter is Nick Potamitis. How does he feel about the protesters in his lot?

“I made a mistake. Supposed to be two tents. And there’s a hundred. I don’t like ‘em,” he said. “Nothing I can do. I already signed a contract with them.”

Is he a Republican or a Democrat?

“I am communist,” he said. Then bust out into a laugh. Just kidding. He shows no interest in talking politics.

He’s owned the place, he says, for 38 years, but it’s been in operation for something like 85.

He says, “You want to buy it? I sell it to you.”

TAMPA, FL - JANUARY 21: Rex Rodriguez, 69, smokes a cigar and says he'll vote for President Barack OBama again at the West Tampa Sandwich Shop in Tampa, Florida on January 21, 2012. (Linda Davidson/THE WASHINGTON POST)

11:30 a.m.

Ann Romney connected: That’s the message from one small corner of the West Tampa Sandwich Shop. Wednesday’s lunch special: Puerco Asada, Moro y Yuca. A sign behind the counter says “Parking for Cubans Only: All Others Will Be Towed.” The restaurant is unprepossessing on the outside and rather loud and cramped within, but with thousands of photographs of civic leaders and local residents on the walls, it’s a place where you can always gin up a discussion about politics.

West Tampa is the historic Cuban neighborhood across the Hillsborough River from Ybor City. It’s a Democratic stronghold, traditionally, though like so much of Florida it’s seen a surge in Republican sentiment. Florida is a swing state and Hillsborough is a swing county; President Obama will want to carry West Tampa by a large margin.

Marco and Idalis Rosario said they watched the GOP convention throughout Tuesday night and offered a rave review. They didn’t vote four years ago. This time they were a bit wary of Mitt Romney. They said they’re coming around.

“What I like about the conventions is you get to know the candidates more personally,” Idalis said. “You come to see the person and get to see if you like them as a person.”

And she likes Ann Romney.

“I think she’s a tough person,” she said. Being tough is important to her: Her husband is battling cancer. The Romneys have endured medical crises and so are she and her husband. “Before he was diagnosed with cancer, I was a softie.”

One table away, Hector and Martha Vila gave thumbs up for the GOP show. Hector, 81, a former Budweiser plant supervisor, loved the Chris Christie speech. “He was dynamic.”

Martha Vila said of Ann Romney, “She stayed in touch with reality. I could relate to her life. And I think she related to our life.”

Hector thinks Romney will win this fall. Martha is more skeptical.

“Many of the Spanish people are old Democrats,” she said. “They vote not so much for Obama as for the party. They’re still tied into that wives’ tale – if you’re poor you have to be a Democrat.”

1 p.m.

There’s nothing more random and unscientific than “man on the street” interviews, and so any thoughts gleaned in such a fashion must carry an asterisk denoting potential irrelevance. But the Obama camp might want to hear what a few voters were saying this morning in West Tampa.

“I voted for Obama, and I will not vote for him again,” said Sandy Garcia, 50, a sales rep having lunch at the West Tampa Sandwich Shop. Four years ago, she said, “I bought into the excitement about Obama.” Now she’s disillusioned, and worried about the country. And she loved the Ann Romney speech Tuesday night.

“I didn’t know anything about her good or bad. She cleared up a lot of worries I had,” she said.

A block away, at another Cuban restaurant, El Gallo de Oro, a couple of old friends sat on the outdoor patio as a black cloud blotted out the morning sun and threatened to unleash a tempest.

“I’m so damned pissed off with the Congress, I think they should get rid of all of them,” said Jorge Miranda, 80, a retired post office worker.

“You’re reading my mind,” said his friend Jorge Ramos, 85.

“The president I don’t think means much of anything because they can’t do [anything] without them,” Miranda said.

“The country is being run by the wealthy. That’s why we don’t have much of anything, because they are controlling all the wealth. The gasoline, the banks,” Ramos said.

Both are Democrats. Both voted in 2008 for Obama. This time?

“Maybe Romney. I’m not sure,” Miranda said. “Things are not going too good.”

Ramos said he’s always voted Democratic, but so far he’s undecided.

3:42 p.m.

Years ago – who am I kidding, DECADES ago – I wrote the very first story about a young man named Bush who would one run for president.

Jeb Bush.

I called it. The story was emphatic. “Born to Run,” the headline proclaimed. Jeb Bush appeared on the cover holding his son George P. Bush (as I dimly recall – there were also lots of American flags waving). This ran in The Miami Herald’s legendary Tropic Magazine, back in the 1980s, when Gene Weingarten and Tom Shroder were editing it and Dave Barry was rapidly turning himself into the nation’s top humor columnist. The story is pre-Internet, but I can tell you the gist: George Herbert Walker Bush and Barbara Bush had a bunch of kids, and the one who seemed most interested in public life, and most likely to flourish in the political arena, was Jeb.

He was head of the Dade County Republican Party back then. He worked in the private sector but clearly had ambitions for public office. He didn’t deny them.

The story referred to his older brother George as “George Jr.” I never quite grasped the nomenclature of the Bush clan. Whatever: That George was a struggling businessman with, as we knew later, a drinking habit. He just wasn’t part of the conversation.

Now I’m at the Improv Theater in Ybor City, watching George P. Bush, Jeb’s son, be interviewed on stage by Chuck Todd. George P. was just a kid when I interviewed his dad. I vaguely recall playing catch with him in the street outside the modest Bush house. Now George P. is a lawyer and entrepreneur. He’d get a ton of attention if he ever decided to run for public office.

But the lesson of this story is that even the things you know for sure might not turn out to be true. Inevitability remains conjectural. In politics, anything can happen.

As you recall, “George Jr.” and Jeb both ran for governor of their respective states, Texas and Florida, but only the older brother won. Jeb later became governor of Florida, but by then the wheel of history had turned. George W. became president, and by the time he left office there was no desire in the country for another Bush presidency.

I bumped into George P. Bush as he was headed to the elevator before today’s event, and reminded him of that magazine story I wrote long ago about his father.

“Born to Run?” he asked. Yep, that one, about how his dad would run for president someday.

“Timing is everything,” George P. said with a smile.