TAMPA — On most evenings during the Republican National Convention, the CNN Grill — a full-scale, free restaurant erected by the cable network in a parking garage — is a hopping venue filled with political types and the journalists who cover them. It's exclusive, too: Credentials are handed out to only a select few — or granted by request, if you happen to be GOP mega-donor Foster Friess.
But Thursday night, as Marco Rubio and Mitt Romney spoke from the Tampa Bay Times Forum, the bar emptied of its regular clientele, leaving a small, eclectic group of the credential-less to watch the show as most Americans would: on television.
As Taylor Hicks, the former American Idol winner, sang at the Forum, CNN host Piers Morgan sat at a table in the grill with his laptop, scanning Twitter in preparation for his live show that would shoot after Romney's speech.
"There's a big-screen TV," Morgan said, nodding toward one of the room's myriad televisions, "so it's like watching it there anyway."
Lanny Wiles, a veteran Republican advance man who has attended nine or ten Republican conventions (by his count), knows what it's like. But this year, instead of being on the convention floor, Wiles was seated in the CNN Grill with a glass of red wine.
"It's not 'been there, done that,'" Wiles mused. "It's exciting." But, he said, "I've had the thrill."
"We've had a great ride," he continued. "It's time to let everybody else have their ride."
A few tables away, it was “make-your-own barbacoa tacos” all around for cast and crew from "The Daily Show," including Jason Jones, Aasif Mandvi and John Oliver.
They had been shooting all day around the convention site — but not in the Forum.
"We couldn't get passes," Mandvi explained.
"Because we're 'The Daily Show.' It's the Republican National Convention. Enough said."
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz was also without a credential, although she never sought one out in the first place. Instead, she watched the evening's speeches with her staff from the back of the grill, intently focused.
“Mitt Romney’s speech was surprising in its lack of specificity,” Wasserman Schultz said a few minutes after Romney concluded his remarks. “He talked about almost nothing.”
As people began to flow from the Forum into the grill, Wasserman Schultz also noted that she thought the remarks by Sen. Marco Rubio, of Florida, were “kind of nasty.”
“The whole convention, capped off by Mitt Romney and Marco Rubio’s speeches, was divisive and essentially fact-free,” Wasserman Schultz said. “This whole convention was a fact-free zone.”