WASHINGTON – With the Republican convention coming to town at the end of the month, the island of Manhattan is turning into a fortress reminiscent of the days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
The heightened security has caused some political insiders to second-guess the GOP's decision to bring its nominating convention to New York City.
"I think it was a mistake for the Republicans," said Norm Ornstein, political analyst for the American Enterprise Institute (search), a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C.
Aside from the protests, inconveniences to locals and more than $75 million estimated cost for security, most of which is being footed by U.S. taxpayers, some analysts said they suspected Republicans would be fingered as exploitative for choosing to hold what amounts to a political Super Bowl near Ground Zero (search), the site of the World Trade Center attacks that killed close to 3,000 people.
"There is a risk that voters will see the New York location as an effort to use 9/11 for politics," said Ornstein. "Opposition from 9/11 families and firefighters could be embarrassing, and there may be violence in demonstrations."
Sherri Annis, a Washington-based Republican strategist who will be one of the 50,000 visitors to the convention taking place Aug. 30 through Sept. 2, said it is too soon for Republicans to have buyer's remorse over the venue.
"I don't think people know enough or have experienced enough to regret it. The reality is, the Republicans will only know in hindsight whether this was a good idea or not," she said.
But, Annis added, "as long as the party and [President] Bush handle their visit to New York with class, in a very understanding manner, then their presence will speak volumes and not hit people in the face."
In the abstract, say some Republican political observers, going to New York City sounded like a great idea. Bush showed command there after the Sept. 11 attacks and the city became a place around which all of America rallied in the bleak days following the tragedy.
The city also wanted the Republicans to come. When New York City won the monthslong bid for the convention, Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg (search) thanked President Bush and the Republican Party for its "faith" and promised $150 million in economic activity as a result.
One veteran of many Republican conventions said that when the convention was first announced in January 2003, Bush was up in the polls and public approval was strong for going to war with Iraq. Some analysts even speculated that Bush could actually draw some votes out of New York in 2004.
"But then came the Iraq war, which soon split the country in two, putting New York well out of reach for the Republicans," said the source who asked not to be named. "The convention itself is planted in hostile territory in the middle of a war. The front page of the New York Times every day these days is a grim, above-the-fold photo from Iraq."
Compounded with that are new terror alerts by Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge (search) which indicate that the Big Apple remains a high-profile target for terrorists seeking to disrupt the November elections, much like in Spain in March after bomb attacks on Madrid commuter trains killed 190 and altered the election, which was held days later.
In response, 10,000 city cops will be on duty to handle perimeter security, the tens of thousands of protesters expected to demonstrate and the disruptions to the normal routine of New York residents and employees due to closings. Any potential plans for Bush to make a formal visit to Ground Zero are not being discussed publicly.
Critics say Republicans are already suffering from an image problem among the staunchly Democratic New York City electorate, and adding 15,000 journalists, 13,000 delegates and thousands more party officials, lobbyists and activists to the mix will create a stark contrast not favorable to Republicans.
"The real irony is that New Yorkers were the biggest victims directly on 9/11, and now they are the biggest victims of the Republicans' attempt to exploit 9/11," said George Getz, spokesman for the Libertarian Party (search) and Republican critic. "It's a big political mistake."
Getz said New Yorkers, and Americans elsewhere, are not going to miss the political cues built around the specter of the terror attacks three years ago.
"They really don't care about the impact on the people," he said. "This isn't about the City of New York, this is about Republicans trying to look good — it's nothing more than a taxpayer-funded political ad."
"It's not going to be the economic shot in the arm (New York) was looking for, and some people might think it is much more of a burden than they initially realized," said Monty Warner, a conservative media strategist, who added that no one will be surprised by Democrats accusing Republicans of exploiting Sept. 11.
Most Republican insiders contacted by FOXNews.com said the GOP would face backlash wherever the convention is held. New York, which asked to be the host city, is still the best place to hold the 2004 convention, they said.
"I think it was a stroke of genius for the Republicans to have it in New York," said Jim McLaughlin, a New York-based Republican pollster, who said returning to Ground Zero will remind people of the point when "the president really became president."
McLaughlin said returning to the city will reinforce the image that Bush is the strongest leader who will stand up against terrorism, and he dismissed charges of exploitation.
"No matter what President Bush does, the Democrats call it political," he said.
Craig Shirley, Republican media consultant, said he thinks the televised coverage of the protests — from aging Yuppies and drag queens to lumbering street puppets and anarchists — will have the effect of energizing the "lagging" GOP base in the rest of the country.
He said skepticism would always surround parties' picks of what he called risky venues for their conventions.
In 1980, the choice of Detroit for the convention helped the GOP create a "metaphor for blue-collar Reagan Democrats." In 1984, the Democrats' choice of San Francisco had a negative impact because it enforced the party's liberal stereotype.
"There has been a minor amount of what I would call Monday morning quarterbacking about New York, but just a tiny bit," he said, adding that the sometimes the choice of the venue works, and "sometimes it backfires."