- The Washington Times - Monday, September 3, 2012

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Don’t tell Claudia Blakemore that President Obama is bad for small business.

A 68-year-old registered nurse from Houston, Ms. Blakemore has come to the Democratic National Convention to make money by peddling Obama-themed buttons, ball caps and tote bags from a small, wheeled cart.

After her sales success during the last presidential campaign, Ms. Blakemore said, she couldn’t stay away.

“In one day in 2008, I made $8,000,” she said. “I could not believe it. As a matter of fact, I found money in my truck six months later, about $400. I had so much money, I was sticking it all over the place.”

Republicans say Mr. Obama has been to entrepreneurs and the economy what New Coke was to soft drink innovation: a fizzy, overhyped flop.

For the street vendors hawking T-shirts and trinkets outside the Charlotte Convention Center, however, the president is more like a one-man stimulus package.

Case in point? Stan Gerzofsky, a Democratic delegate and a state senator from Maine, spent much of Tuesday morning shopping for souvenirs.

Sweat-stained and smiling, Mr. Gerzofsky held a plastic shopping bag stuffed with buttons, a poster featuring a big-headed, cartoon caricature of Mr. Obama holding up four fingers — with a caption reading “four more years” — and a bright yellow T-shirt proclaiming, “I’ve Got His Back.”

“Everybody back home wants souvenirs,” Mr. Gerzofsky said. “Not so much Democratic stuff as Barack Obama stuff.”

Indeed, while national conventions long have been happy hunting grounds for tchotchke vendors — places to buy candidate bobblehead dolls without shame — Mr. Obama’s meteoric political rise and enduring personal popularity have made him a far more lucrative merchandising subject than Republican rival Mitt Romney.

Four years ago, Denver reportedly issued more than 700 vendor licenses during the month of the Democratic convention, and goods were sold for several days on streets and at a downtown pedestrian mall.

In Charlotte, convention organizers reportedly had more vendor applications than available space, and the convention as a whole is estimated to have as much as a $150 million impact on the city.

Inside the convention center — where register lines ran a dozen customers deep — an official campaign merchandise area offered Obama-branded golf balls and hooded sweatshirts, pre-orders for the “official panoramic photo the 2012 convention” and buttons proclaiming support for the president from a demographic smorgasbord including fathers, bus drivers, firefighters and kayakers.

(Alas, no private equity capitalists for Obama. We double-checked.)

Outside the center, offerings were both unofficial and more eclectic, including plastic-encased newspapers from the day after Mr. Obama’s election ($10), sequined tote bags celebrating Mr. Obama’s inauguration (price negotiable) and buttons featuring the president tenderly nuzzling Michelle Obama ($5).

(Alas, no condoms sporting Mr. Obama’s image and the tag line “the ultimate stimulus package for hard times,” as sometimes spotted in New York City’s Times Square. Again, we double-checked.)

A street vendor named Gregory — who travels the country selling T-shirts at major events but declined to give his last name, likely because of income-tax considerations — said he expected to sell more than 400 “I’ve Got His Back” shirts per day.

“And that won’t be as big as 2008,” said Gregory, who said he makes as much as $5,000 on a good day. “It crossed all demographic lines. Seriously. I’ve been selling shirts since 1988, and that is the best merchandise I ever sold — ever, ever, ever. It was crazy good.”

Ms. Blakemore concurred. In early 2008, she said, she never intended to turn souvenir selling into a side business.

Ms. Blakemore ordered 250 T-shirts. They sold. She ordered 500 more. They sold. She ordered 1,000 — and couldn’t keep them in stock.

By the end of the year, Ms. Blakemore had traveled to Colorado, Mississippi and Austin, Texas, cashing in on Obamamania.

“It just exploded,” she said. “Things can’t be as good as then — there’s only one first time. But I think it will work out. Last time, I was able to give a good amount [of money] to the Obama campaign.”

All of it?

“Oh, no,” she said with a laugh. “I kept a little for myself.”

At a street party staged near the convention center, a lone vendor was selling “Romney-Ryan 2012” buttons and key chains, watched by a city police officer and drawing negative comments from pedestrians.

“It’s a free country,” the vendor repeatedly replied.

Perhaps befitting the president’s ongoing street-level sales appeal, the vendor was wearing a shark’s teeth necklace that spelled out “O-B-A-M-A.”