TAMPA, Fla. – Aside from selecting a presidential nominee, it is perhaps the most vexing question in several state delegations: What to wear?
Most Republican National Convention delegates packed for humidity, heat, hurricanes and television shots. But for the handful of state delegations that coordinate their outfits among delegates, the planning went back months.
“For me, it’s like camaraderie,” Deirdre Harper of suburban Denver said of the custom white blouse she and her fellow Coloradans wore Wednesday night. “Like we’re all a team, we’re all together. It’s nice.”
The net result is a fascinating pan shot of an arena filled with West Virginia miner hats, Puerto Rican fedoras, cowboy hats, and Hawaiian shirts – for a panoply of matching delegations.
Hands down, the most trendsetting, organized and enthusiastic group to attend the four-day event was the Texas delegation.
As best as anyone could tell on the floor, they started the matching tradition at Bob Dole’s nominating convention in 1996.
They wear straw cowboy hats every night. Some added their own creative flair to the hats, most commonly “Don’t Mess With Texas” bumper stickers.
There is a different outfit planned for each convention night. State Republican activists and politicians donate the outfits. And by now, it is tradition that delegates wear Texas flag button-down shirts early in the week.
One Texas operative on the scene in Tampa grumbled about the attention his state’s ritual garners.
Noting the flag shirts, he complained that it is a dated 1990s look that plays into Texas stereotypes on national television.
But within the delegation, there’s nothing short of pride.
“Every state has something that says who they are,” said Jon Gimble of Waco, whose ancestor fought in Texas’ war of independence from Mexico.
“It can also be a positive thing to be proud of where you’re from, as long as you’re not using it as a bully stick to beat up someone else,” he added. “We’re just talking about how good Texas is.”
Besides Texas, the most distinctively dressed are the Hawaiians. It is a major focal point of pre-convention planning for the delegation.
“We have a committee that decides it, so it is planned months in advance,” Pepper Dombroski of Maui said.
Hawaii, like some of the other delegations, does have dissent among the fashion decisions. Some delegates complained that red, white and blue should be incorporated into their shirts.
“Everyone has an opinion,” Dombroski said. The state party chair eventually made the final call on what Dombroski describes as “aloha attire.” The shirts did not include patriotic colors.
“This is really a traditional aloha shirt,” she explained of her Tori Richard-designed shirt. “And one that I can certainly wear after the convention, so I’m happy either way.”
The Hawaiians also have orchid leis flown in daily for the convention.
Tamara Hall, a delegate from Bozeman, Mont., said there was some controversy in her delegation as well.
“We all voted on it. And I know some people said, ‘Oh, we don’t want to wear the same thing. That’s hokey,'” she said.
“We all decided that we want to make a statement that ‘Here’s Montana. We are a small state, but we are important too,'” Hall said.
She mischievously twirled in the women’s restroom of the arena, making sure to note the logo on the back of her denim vest that featured an elephant stomping on a donkey.
There was another reason the decision appealed to Montana delegates.
“Who from Montana wants to wear a business suit?” Hall asked. “Most of the men were like, ‘Hallelujah! This is a great out!'”
The cowboy hat is also a point of contention for some delegates. For many, it is too overly associated with the Lone Star State. Several Western states opted for cowboy hats, including Colorado. But at least one of that state’s delegates worried “it reminds me of Texas.”
It is a similar concern of the Oklahoma crowd. They opted against a cowboy hat for that very reason.
So instead, when Rick Santorum visited the Oklahoma delegation, he was swarmed by Sooners wearing dark fitted blazers and khaki pants.
“We love Texas. They’re our neighbors,” Megan Winburn said. “We value their conservatism. [But] we gotta have a little bit something different.”
But beyond the internal debates and intrastate worries, the idea of coordinating outfits is a point of fun amid the fiery rhetoric and ideological angst that has consumed much of the convention.
In between speeches, delegates trade pins with other states.
Cindy Sue Clark, a Hawaii delegate, took an evangelical approach to her delegation’s theme.
As House Republican Conference Vice Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.) addressed the convention Wednesday night, Clark stood to the side of the aisle and cheerfully placed seashell necklaces around the necks of anyone, even reviled mainstream media reporters, who passed by the Hawaii delegation.
Her own lei was missing.
“Mine are gone,” she said. “They went to Janine Turner and Cathy Gillespie this morning at the Ann Romney breakfast.”