These are strange days for Tampa, and for America. Over the past decade, political polarization has turned the country into a powder keg. Buckhorn's job is to prevent tens of thousands of convention conservatives and left-leaning protesters from combusting on his streets. It won't be easy. If the nation has long been coming apart at the seams, Tampa could be the crotch that finally splits wide open.
Inside the convention center will be titans of industry, the billionaire Koch brothers, hordes of Tea Partiers in tricornered hats, Bill O'Reilly and Fox News freaks, Karl Rove with his Crossroads GPS super-PAColytes, and a few thousand fawning female Christian fundamentalists toting "Enraptured by Paul Ryan" signs.
On the other side of the picket line will be those resisting America's rightward shift: Code Pink matriarchs clad as papier-mâché vulvas, carbon-neutral nouveau hippies, and the moldy leftovers of the Occupy movement. More than 15,000 protesters are expected. Videos threatening violence, supposedly by international hacker group Anonymous, have already been uploaded online.
"Mayor Buckhorn can shove his authoritarian zones up his ass," says a masked protester in one video. "When protest becomes illegal, there is no other option left but to fight."
Buckhorn says demonstrators have nothing to fear: "I've been very clear from the get-go that if you're coming here to protest, you're welcome. But if you step out of line and if you're coming here to cause mayhem, we are going to deal with you."
The mayor is a cheery man with bright, beady eyes dropped like blueberries onto a doughy face. In true American fashion, he'll be happy if he can survive August with maximum profit and minimum scandal.
"I'm agnostic until the convention is over. For me, it's not about red-state, blue-state. It's about green," Buckhorn admits, estimating the convention will bring Tampa more than $175 million.
Bipartisan bonhomie goes only so far, though. The Secret Service prohibits guns within the convention center, but in a state with more than a million concealed-weapons permits, Tampa will be swimming in sidearms. When Buckhorn asked the governor to ban concealed weapons temporarily in town during the convention, Scott scoffed.
"I'm not an anti-gun kind of guy. I've got guns. Up until probably six months ago, I had a concealed-weapons permit," Buckhorn boasts. "But to interject guns into a potentially combustible environment to me is absurd."
He says Scott's snarky response was probably written by the NRA. "He has his opinions about the Second Amendment, and he isn't going to let the safety of the public or our police officers get in the way of it."
Scott's decision isn't popular in left-leaning Tampa, but it has gone down well in nearby, rabidly Republican Hillsborough County.
"Who's more likely to have a gun: a pinko commie liberal or a God-fearing Republican?" reasons Joseph Wendt, a Romney supporter in the area. "If you're a bunch of liberal activists going to protest a conservative event where people are legally allowed to carry guns, you better behave."
Buckhorn's stance hasn't exactly endeared him to progressives plotting to protest the convention either. They decry his plan to put them in three "clean zones" located several blocks from the Times Forum. And they fear retaliation from the 4,000 heavily armed police officers — paid for by a $50 million Homeland Security grant — who will cordon off downtown.
"We're not going to do anything illegal," says Corey Uhl, head of Students for a Democratic Society at the University of South Florida. "But with the recent frameups of NATO protesters in Chicago, you never know what the government will do."
Others are arguably already breaking the law. A group called the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign rented the land behind an Army surplus store near the Forum. They spread mulch on the parking lot, set up a portable toilet, erected Pepto-Bismol-pink tents, and called it "Romneyville." Local officials say the tents violate zoning laws, but protesters say they'll handcuff themselves to fences rather than leave.
"Republicans can't ignore us," says Bruce Wright, one of the campaign's organizers. "This is the future of the United States if things don't change."
Buckhorn's office has tried to contain the craziness by barring protesters from bringing props such as puppets and masks. But he will have his hands full with Code Pink's vagina costumes.
The outfits were inspired by an incident last year when a Democratic state rep joked that the only way for a Florida woman to avoid Republicans' invasive reproductive regulations was to "incorporate her uterus." Republicans scolded him for using the word on the House floor.
"These stupid old-boy white men want to legislate our vaginas," says Anita Stewart, a home health-care practitioner with a grandmotherly air. "They came out of a vagina and spend the rest of their lives trying to crawl back up in one, but they don't want to hear the word.