Some states dress in a uniform to represent something of their state. The Texas delegation, for instance had wonderful shirts in the style of the state flag of the Lone Star State with big cowboy hats. Utah’s uniform was simply Sunday dress primarily, appropriate for the state that is home to the Missionary Training Center. However, we all have cool buttons that declare that Romney/Ryan will be “Rockin’ Utah”.
Many of these delegates are first timers, and others in the Utah group have been to numerous conventions. For example, Tim Bridgewater has been to five, Gordon and Carlene Walker have been to six, and Ron Fox to ten.
But the Utahn here with the record of the most consecutive conventions attended is Neal Blair of Holladay. Although never a delegate himself, Neal has helped work twelve national Republican conventions.
“My first one was San Francisco 1964,” said Blair, a native of Stockton, California. “I was active in GOP politics and was on the volunteer staff for the New York state party,” he said. Blair explains that most of the New Yorkers he worked with were fighting hard that convention to help Nelson Rockefeller.
“But I was thrilled to be there supporting Barry Goldwater, much to their chagrin,” he said. Blair was in the Cow Palace when Goldwater accepted the GOP nomination and delivered the infamous lines, “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”
Goldwater went down in a landslide to Lyndon B. Johnson, but Blair was hooked and came back to convention after convention. He was in Miami in ’68 when Nixon and Agnew were nominated, and back to Miami in ’72 when Nixon was renominated. Blair was in Kansas City in 1976 for the contentious convention that nominated Ford and Dole, and cheered Ronald Reagan on to victory in Detroit in ’80 and Dallas in ’84.
Neal Blair went to New Orleans in ’88 and Houston in ’92 to see Bush and Quayle nominated. He was in San Diego in 1996 for Bob Dole, and in Philadelphia in 2000 and New York City in 2004 for the second Bush and Cheney. And of course, Blair was in St. Paul for McCain and Palin in 2008 and here in Tampa for Mitt Romney.
When asked which one of these twelve were his favorite, Blair replied, “Not even close. This one. It has been the most exciting, with the most enthusiastic speakers, and with some really enthusiastic delegates.”
Blair said that the Reagan conventions in ’80 and ’84 were exciting but “nothing compared to the electricity here in Tampa. Ann Romney was the best spouse speech I’ve ever heard and Paul Ryan was phenomenal.”
Conventions have changed a lot since Blair’s first one in 1964. The days of smoke-filled rooms and wrangling for delegates on the convention floor are long gone. The conventions, while exciting, are so tightly scripted that they are more like political General Conference. There are newcomers with shorter speeches, and more senior members with larger time slots. The faithful is inspired and discord is minimized.
David Neilsen is loving the convention, too, but doesn’t have the same basis of comparison as a Neal Blair. Neilsen is not only one of the many first-time delegates from Utah, but at age 26 is the youngest member of the Utah delegation.
“It’s been inspiring and a little overwhelming,” said Neilsen. He compares the experience to running the Ragnar Wasatch Back relay. “The convention sessions go late, we party until later, then we are up early for a breakfast meeting and the craziness continues,” said Neilsen.
Neilsen was the College Republican vice chair for BYU and helped send Cougars all over the country to help Mitt in his first presidential bid. He graduated from the Y in political science, was a field coordinator for the state GOP, and is now the campaign manager for Rep. Derek Brown.
After getting involved with Mitt’s second White House bid, Neilsen was approached by the Romney camp and recruited to be a delegate on the official slate. “I was really humbled and honored,” said Neilsen, “especially considering all of the prominent people who wanted to be a delegate from Utah this year.” He was elected one of the alternate delegates for the Fourth Congressional District and is now here in Tampa.
He has been a fun, friendly addition to the group, and demonstrated great leadership by organizing Monday’s service project of assembling hygiene kits. “I helped with similar projects as a missionary in Indonesia,” he said, “and was happy to jump in when the party asked me to.”
“This has been a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Neilsen said. “And my favorite part has been getting to know our state’s elected officials and other delegates in a more casual setting, and seeing their fun personalities come through.” Seeing Senator Mike Lee singing “Piano Man” while Rep. Derek Brown plays the piano, or eating ice cream at midnight with Senator Hatch are fun things for a young political junkie.
But who knows. Maybe it won’t be David Neilsen’s last convention. Once bitten by the bug, delegates tend to try to find their way back to the next convention. Just ask Neal Blair.