TAMPA — “ ’Scuse me, guys, ’scuse me,” Ron Kaufman, a senior adviser to Mitt Romney, said as he led Texas Sen. John Cornyn (R) through a crowd of VIPs and past a shoulder-height stogie to a private room marked Diamond Crown Cigar Lounge. The sanctum, filled with smoke and power brokers six floors above the convention floor, is the site of Kaufman’s private Republican party.
“It’s like your bar mitzvah,” a reporter said to him Wednesday night.
“It is!” Kaufman responded.
This week, Kaufman is having the time of his life.
The noted Beltway influence peddler, Republican National Committeeman, former White House political director and adviser to President George H.W. Bush has served as a counselor to Republican presidential nominee Romney. For the past year, Kaufman also has served as the Romney campaign’s comic relief. A Kaufman-themed calendar has hung on the walls of Romney headquarters, and two halves of his trim mustache and wire-frame glasses have slid together with the office’s elevator doors to form his grinning face. At the convention, campaign aides and some former governors are wearing a button with Kaufman’s visage above the word “Tamper,” a reference to his Boston-accented rendition of Tampa.
On Tuesday, he was given the honor of announcing Massachusetts’s support of Romney during the roll call on the convention floor. It is upstairs every night, though, where Kaufman is really enjoying the show.
On Wednesday night, Kaufman had a cellophane-wrapped cigar in the breast pocket of his blue shirt and, around his neck, a red tie and lanyard weighed down by a deck of cards’ worth of VIP passes. He swirled a glass of amber liquid in a clear plastic cup as he meandered around a small area outside the Republican Governors Association’s makeshift bar and a terrace set aside for Romney’s Founding Members donors. He said, “Good, good,” and rubbed random shoulders. As a muted television above the cigar bar’s door showed Condoleezza Rice delivering her speech, Kaufman walked past the two young women checking Kaufman-issued passes to the cigar bar — they read “Churchill Lounge” and featured Winston Churchill’s stogie-chomping face.
Inside, it was dark and hushed. An illuminated vitrine offered a dozen brands of cigars to the large men who reclined on a sofa, their broad ties hanging over their bellies. The guests discussed George W. Bush and helped themselves to booze at a small bar. (“All we have is Maker’s Mark,” said one aide managing the room. “And we’ve had, like, three women in there, and they have all complained about the drink selection.”) Two televisions showed the speeches that some of the men preferred to watch through a window onto the convention floor. Kaufman stood in the middle of the room holding court.
Lots of people wanted to get into Kaufman’s cigar bar.
Two reporters from major national newspapers tried to get in.
“It’s not my call,” Kaufman said to one of the women.
“It’s precisely your call,” she protested.
Another reporter tried his luck.
“Come over to the Marriott afterwards, and we’ll smoke some great cigars,” Kaufman offered as consolation.
“I’m a married man!” the reporter, sensing mischief, responded.
“I know. She’s in there,” Kaufman cracked, cocking his head toward the cigar bar. “That’s why you can’t come in.”
Republican VIPs didn’t fare much better. A former state chairman of Delaware teetered toward the door where the two slim sentinels stopped him. “I’m so sorry,” one of them said. “Ron’s informed me we’re at capacity right now.”
“Awww,” the official, drink in hand, said. “You’re kidding me.”
A little later, as New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez (R) took the podium, a man in a pinstriped suit confided to a woman that Kaufman was “the greatest political mind I have ever personally met.” Republican Govs. Chris Christie of New Jersey and Robert F. McDonnell of Virginia approached in the bright hall. Kaufman sauntered out to say hello, crossing an aide with the governors’ entourages who was coming in. “Is this worth popping into?” the aide said to a woman standing in front of the governors association party and the cigar room.
“No,” she responded quickly.
The aide returned to where the governors were standing, with Kaufmann patting Christie’s shoulder. Christie, who gave the keynote address Tuesday night, then jabbed his finger toward Kaufman’s chest and bent down to whisper animatedly in his ear. Kaufman nodded and again patted the governor’s shoulder. Christie turned and walked away.
Kaufman, glass in hand, returned to the cigar bar and bade lingerers to go “get your cigar.” Some people left.
“You leaving?” Kaufman said. “Cowards.”
A few minutes later, Haley Barbour, the Republican super PAC grandee and former governor of Mississippi, exited the room, saying, “Smoky, smoky,” and Gov. Matt Mead of Wyoming (R) entered with his tall wife (“She’s a superstah,” Kaufman whispered in someone’s ear).
More senators and VIPs came and went, some puffing, some not, but all paid tribute to Kaufman and his excellent party. “It’s a good gig,” Kaufman’s assistant said as more people went into the room. “It’s a crazy gig.”