Only one place is open: a fish taco joint, where sweaty guys in tank tops are drinking beer on the patio. They see Norquist and woot like they’ve seen Tim Tebow.
“Hey guys!” Norquist responds with a wave.
He still hasn’t practiced his comedy set.
7:50 p.m. At Liberty Plaza, the temporary party pavilion erected for the convention, Norquist and entourage are ushered into a party held in his honor, hosted by the conservative think tank Frontiers of Freedom. It’s in a tent with plastic floors and dim, blue lighting. Norquist fans in Harley Davidson T-shirts and jean shorts mill around. In the background play videos detailing the evils of Environmental Protection Agency regulations. Laid out on folding tables are plates of pulled pork from Jimmy John’s, beef tacos, Chex mix, and Rice Krispies treats. At the bar, there’s Bud Light — and to Norquist’s relief, Diet Coke.
Tampa lawyer Bob Nader (no relation to Ralph, he insists), approaches Norquist and the two discuss Fox News. “When you say Fox News, I want to genuflect,” says Nader.
Norquist gives a short speech. “There are 100 different doors to come into the conservative movement,” he said. “You can disagree with 99 of them, as long as you agree on one: more-limited government.”
8:23 p.m. Norquist has moved to the convention floor, where he is set to shoot an interview with CBS. The halls outside are swarming with friends and fellow GOP stars. On the way, Norquist spots the owner of a barbecue place in Georgia, Oscar Poole, decked out in a yellow suit and giant Uncle Sam hat (pictured right). “I want that outfit,” Norquist says. “When I retire, I want to walk around in that all day.”
Tim Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor and one-time GOP presidential hopeful, stops to chat. He says Norquist is a party animal at every level.
“He’s got some rap moves that I think people don’t fully appreciate,” Pawlenty says. “He’s a big fan of 50 Cent and Lady Gaga.”
9:45 p.m. Norquist is starting to get nervous. It’s getting late, he still has to hit HomoCon, and he hasn’t had time to go over his comedy routine.
The Norquists cab it to a fancy bar in downtown Ybor City. While Samah watches Ann Romney’s speech, Grover walks around the block, practicing his routine. “You’re going to look like a crazy person, Grovy,” Samah warns.
“I’ll put the phone earbud in,” says Norquist. “People will think I’m someone important.”
11 p.m. Arriving at HomoCon, there’s no more time to practice. The party is at a club called the Honey Pot. At the entrance, Norquist does interviews about his stance on gay rights, for which he’s been criticized by social conservatives in his party. “I get yelled at a lot,” Norquist says. “But these guys are just conservatives who happen to be gay.”
Inside the club are disco balls, pink and blue Japanese lanterns, and vases of white orchids. A man in a glittery silver suit and cowboy hat is dancing, and “Call Me Maybe” is blasting. Norquist sweeps up to the VIP lounge, does more interviews, and quickly makes his retreat. He’s been there an hour and now his set at the Tampa Improv is coming up.
12:45 a.m. Norquist takes the Improv stage. His delivery is deadpan, in the style of his comic hero, Steven Wright. “My wife and I have what’s known as mixed marriage. I am a Methodist, she is a Muslim. So we’re keeping it in the M's. We’re thinking that for the kids, we could go with the Mennonites or the Mormons. The Mennonites have this really nice low-carbon footprint. But the Mormons—I have two daughters—I think if I work this out right, I only have to pay for one wedding.”
Obviously, political humor is on the menu: “I do want to warn some of my conservative friends who like to bring up questions about where Barack Obama was born, and birth certificates, and stuff, I wouldn’t go too far down that road. We’re about to nominate a guy who lived in Utah and was governor of Massachusetts. He’s never technically lived in this country.”
“I tease,” Norquist adds. “I grew up in Massachusetts before emigrating to the States.”
The audience loves it.
Samah is visibly relieved.
1 a.m. Norquist and Samah are back on the street, looking for a cab. There’s none to be found. A young couple — he in sport coat and Mitt Romney coif, she in a teal cocktail dress and matching pumps — approaches Norquist. “We have a car and driver,” they say. “We’ll take you home, wherever you want to go.”
That’s the kind of thing that happens to Grover Norquist here.