By BRIAN BAKST, JACK GILLUM and STEPHEN BRAUN, Associated Press
TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Away from the televised political speeches and Mitt Romney's nomination at the Republican National Convention, energy, technology, transportation companies and others are hosting lavish parties for Republican leaders, politicians and Romney's top donors.
The behind-the-scenes parties, receptions and other exclusive events allow the Republican elite to mingle with donors and special interests in a way that's unusual even for the nation's capital. Dozens of events and scores of donors, lobbyists and corporate heads are all under one roof this week — and under a loosely regulated setting distant from Washington.
That's as voters, who have long bristled at how special interests influence policymakers, will see only scripted, primetime speeches and Romney's acceptance remarks from their living rooms.
The influence of money in politics has received heightened scrutiny this election, as independent political groups have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to support their favored candidates. This is the first convention that will highlight the impact of these groups, including the presence of top GOP strategist Karl Rove of the "super" political committee American Crossroads.
The parties begin anew next week in Charlotte, N.C., home to the Democrats' national convention. The DNC said its gathering would be the first not to rely on special-interest money, although its organizers quietly set up a nonprofit entity to collect corporate cash.
Democratic donors complained early in President Barack Obama's administration that they were kept at arm's length. Since then, the president has opened his White House to contributors for events like state dinners and meetings with policy advisers.
Republican delegates this week will be starting their days with muffins, fresh fruit and egg sandwiches at receptions with company sponsorships. At one event Monday afternoon, delegates raved about hors d'oeuvres like truffles and caviar, along with champagne.
Attendees had a wide swatch of events to choose from: a Kid Rock concert on Wednesday, a "Back to the Reagan '80s" reception on Thursday by the Americans for Tax Reform Foundation or a "Wheels Up" party on Friday hosted in part by the National Energy Institute and Citizens United, the conservative organization behind the namesake 2010 Supreme Court case that loosened restrictions on money in politics.
As well, corporations with business before the federal government — including those with major financial interests at stake — are throwing their own events for delegates and attendees. In some cases, the parties blend the agendas of both corporate and media hosts that have some symbiotic interests in Washington's halls of power.
Among those sponsoring events in Tampa are Anheuser-Busch, the St. Louis-based producer of Budweiser and other beer brands; pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co. and the Lifetime Television Network. Elliott Management Corp. hedge fund co-founder Paul Singer, who gave $1 million to a super PAC backing Romney, is also co-sponsoring an event aimed at gay Republicans.
Another host is the Personal Care Products Council, sponsor of a "Cocktail and Cosmetics" reception. One of the council's members is Utah-based Nu Skin Enterprises, a personal care and dietary supplements firm whose vice chairman, Steven J. Lund, was linked to $2 million in donations to the same Romney-leaning super PAC, Restore Our Future.
A "Nightly Lounge" scheduled all week in Tampa is hosted by Politico, the Washington-focused web news operation. The events, which will also be held at the Democratic convention next week, are co-sponsored by defense industry giant BAE Systems, technology designer Intel Corp., liquor seller Diageo and the Coca-Cola Co.
Politico is trying to deepen its news and politics coverage and win more customers for its specialized subscription services. Politico's executive director of events, Beth Lester Sidhu, said the parties were conceived as a "live extension of our journalistic mission."
BAE Systems Inc. was ranked by the General Services Administration as the 10th largest defense contractor in 2011 with $6.8 billion in awards — a rank undiminished even after its British parent firm agreed to pay $79 million in fines that same year for civil arms export violations. Just last week, the firm won back nearly the same amount — $78 million— for a new government contract to produce platforms for U.S. ship-based vertical launching missile systems.
Intel, the multinational semiconductor chip firm based in Silicon Valley, has spent $1.7 million already this year on lobbying in the Senate and House in favor of lowering the corporate tax rate and backing the Trans Pacific Partnership free trade agreement and for removing caps on foreign workers' visas.
"The policy debates that go on are really important to American businesses," Intel spokeswoman Lisa Malloy said. "These are important issues and they really impact our business and we really wanted to be in the middle of it."
British-based Diageo, owner of Captain Morgan rum and other liquor items, spent $1.07 million this year lobbying — partly to keep in place tax breaks for spirits shipped to the U.S. from the U.S. Virgin Islands. And Coca-Cola has spent more than $2.8 million in lobbying this year, pressing for soft drinks to be kept at school cafeterias and to lower corporate tax rates, and opposing laws that would tax beverages to pay for waste water treatment.
A Coca Cola spokeswoman, Nancy Carlson Bailey, said the firm's role was "primarily focused on supporting the respective host committees."
Elsewhere at the convention, the Arkansas GOP delegation was feted to a welcome dinner at a renowned Cuban restaurant in nearby Ybor City. Former Arkansas governor and presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee stopped by, as did representatives of retail giant Wal-Mart, headquartered in the state. Chevron was behind a Mississippi delegation event Monday, where members of Congress and former Gov. Haley Barbour made appearances.
Tropical Storm Isaac, which led Republicans to cancel their Monday convention session, prompted changes in some events but not others. Tuesday's planned panel discussion on "The Millennial Impact on the Youth Vote" was cancelled while a related cocktail reception went on as planned.
Since touching down in Tampa, Wisconsin delegate Jeff Johns has had a full plate of social events. There have been country club luncheons, a welcome event organized by the convention host committee and gatherings featuring prominent officials and staged by companies with hometown connections like Miller-Coors.
"All the VIPS are in the room. You get to mingle with them," Johns said Monday. "Here it's like going out with your college friends to a tavern — except there's a lot of free Miller beer."
Bakst reported from Tampa, and Gillum and Braun from Washington.
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