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GOP convention is an adventure for Utah delegation

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PHILADELPHIA — First, Utah's delegates to the Republican National Convention went to church. Then they hijacked a bus.

After most had spent Sunday at church or relaxing, thoughts turned to piracy when their chartered bus failed to appear to chauffeur them to a 6 p.m. welcoming reception in their honor.

The reception was at the Reading Terminal Market — an indoor farmer's market and collection of restaurants where food and drink was to be free. The mouth-watering entrees ranged from Philly cheese steak to sushi, shrimp, prime rib and lush desserts.

The reception, however, was in downtown Philadelphia. Delegates were stranded at their hotel 10 miles away in Mount Laurel, N.J., so far away it is not only in a different state, but is also a long-distance phone call away from Philadelphia.

So delegates looked to one of the GOP shuttle buses that run every few minutes from delegate hotels to the Comcast First Union Center, where the convention is being conducted. The trouble is, that arena is five miles from the reception site.

"So we hijacked a bus," said a laughing Dan McConkie, an alternate delegate, as he enjoyed a drink at the reception.

Delegates say leaders begged the driver of one of the GOP shuttles to divert out of his normal path to take the group downtown. They managed to persuade him, although exact methods were not disclosed.

"He was nervous. He was so scared he was going to get into trouble," McConkie said. "But he was very nice to us." And the hijacking allowed the delegation to enjoy the reception and make it to a later parade of lighted ships on the Delaware River and watch the fireworks.

Many of them rode on the ship, "Lucky," which they did not need to seize as pirates. They were one of few delegations actually invited to ride on a boat representing them. Most other delegations watched from shore, sipping free champagne.

But because their chartered bus never showed, Utah delegates had to scramble for taxis, buses and subway trains to take them back to their hotel.

Delegate Don Christensen, his wife Ann and alternate delegate Marilyn Stevens had taken a cab to the First Union Center, where they were told buses could take them home. "But everything was closed. No one was around, except one bus," Ann Christensen said.

"We talked to the driver, and he decided to take us home," she said. He had apparently been waiting for delegates from another state who never showed.

Hijacking buses was only one of many adventures on Sunday and Monday for the Utah delegation. Others included finding a famous hometown football star leading the church most visited, wading through amazingly tight security in Philadelphia and finding themselves in the unusual situation of arguing someone can be both a good Mormon and a Republican. Here are some highlights:

Most of Utah's GOP delegation are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, so they scouted for a local LDS congregation to attend Sunday near their suburban New Jersey hotel. They were surprised to find that the bishop of the Moorestown, N.J., ward is Vai Sikahema, a former star kick returner for Brigham Young University when it won the 1984 national championship. He later played for the St. Louis/Arizona Cardinals, Green Bay Packers and Philadelphia Eagles.

"I ended my career playing for the Eagles. We liked the area so much we decided to stay here," said Sikahema, who is now a sportscaster for a Philadelphia TV station. His congregation had so many Utah GOP visitors that Sikahema thought twice about the tradition of having visitors introduce themselves.

"Maybe we ought to introduce ourselves to you," he said. "We're almost outnumbered." . . . In Utah, where Republicans and LDS Church members are predominant, some ask if it is possible to be both a good Mormon and a Democrat. Utah delegates found a reverse situation in New Jersey at church.

"Most of the people here are Democrats. They were kind of surprised that we could be Republicans and Mormons, and be nice people too," said Utah delegate Nila Dayton. . . . Before a welcoming rally for soon-to-be vice presidential nominee Dick Cheney, GOP organizers were passing out signs to the crowd. One said, "Utah loves Cheney."

A Deseret News reporter watched as a dozen people looked at it and passed it on, looking for someone from Utah. No one was ever found in the crowd because the delegation was busy trying to hijack a bus when the Cheney rally occurred. . . . The Utah delegation is sitting in the rear of the convention floor. The view is fine, but Utahns are used to great seats up front.

In recent conventions, states that had the highest percentage of votes for GOP presidential candidates in the previous election were rewarded with the best seats — which always had Utah near the front and in full view of TV cameras.

"It's not that way this year," said Scott Simpson, executive director of the Utah GOP Party. He said the convention's accommodations committee came up with new seat assignments. That's the same group that gave Utah its far-away hotel.

"The seats are the equivalent of our hotel assignment," Simpson said. . . . To ensure protests do not get out of hand, Philadelphia literally has four officers on every downtown corner. And security is beyond tight elsewhere. Delegate shuttle buses are searched each time they arrive at the convention arena — with officers using mirrors to look under buses to ensure bombs have not been attached, and officers walking down bus aisles to search for anything unusual. Delegates entering the hall not only must walk through metal detectors, but must turn cell phones on and off to prove they are real — and even must waste a photograph by taking pictures of their feet to prove their cameras are real.

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