- The Washington Times - Monday, August 27, 2012

YBOR CITY, Fla. — Inside funky Gaspar’s Grotto, where a shot and a beer cost $2 and lusty pirate statues rule the roost, members of the Maryland delegation to the Republican National Convention were doing lunchtime battle — and winning — with heaping plates of Cuban sandwiches and steaming bowls of paella.

The group of more than 100 conventioneers, making the most of an unexpected day off, took over the restaurant and embraced the Mardi Gras theme.

With the Republican National Convention canceled Monday due to Tropical Storm Isaac, hundreds of visiting delegates turned tourists for a day.

Some lined the hallways of the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, others viewed sharks at the Florida Aquarium in Tampa and dozens more took in the party scene in historic Ybor City, where fragrant cups of cafe con leche and hand-rolled cigars are a tradition.

“We’re taking advantage of having a little sunshine today,” said a jocular John Fiastro of Baltimore, who wore a blue guayabera shirt — he’s half Cuban — as he met up with his home state delegation for a fun day of mostly play.

“We’ll have to do in three days what we would normally do in four, but we’ll get it done,” he said, noting most delegates remain upbeat about the abbreviated schedule.

“If they sun stays, I think we’re going to see a lot of delegates in bathing suits this afternoon,” Mr. Fiastro predicted.

Alas, rain squalls punctuated much of the afternoon, with white caps whipping up waves and palms along the shore.

Delegate Dixie Carlson, of Marion, Ark., said she got soaked twice by noon, but wasn’t deterred in her efforts to venture from her hotel and enjoy the area scenery. Wearing a red shirt and patriotic jewelry, Ms. Carlson joined friends Barbara Dodge of West Memphis, Mo., and Mozella Flucht of Little Rock, Ark., for an afternoon stroll down Ybor’s main drag, scoping out a spot to dine.

“We’re having a good time,” she said. “Everything thus far has been wonderful. The people here are nice and the security is great.”

Inside the famed Columbia restaurant, Ashley Young of Kirksville, Mo., said he was enjoying his first convention, even if the swampy humid weather made it challenging.

His group dined on ropa vieja, house-made sangria and crusty Cuban bread at the historic establishment, open since 1905. He said he was touched by the small-business success story behind the family-owned restaurant.

“It’s very heartening to see in this day and age,” he said.

Most of his delegation, he said, was satisfied to have some extra time to see the sights.

“We’re making the most of a bad situation,” he said. “We’re not suffering here. The weather could have been much worse. I think for most of us now, our hearts go out to those who may be impacted by Isaac. Our thoughts are with them.”

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