TAMPA, Fla. -- Mitt Romney wasn't the only person making a crucial stage debut Thursday night. A few miles from the Tampa Bay Times Forum, where Romney accepted the Republican nomination for president, Gloria, a willowy 18-year-old with long, brown hair, prepared to take her first turn on center stage at Alibi, a strip club near the airport.
Like Romney, Gloria had a lot riding on her performance -- possibly more than he did. She needed money, badly. Sitting at the bar, shivering in a tiny black bikini, the new mother said she had a $400 electric bill to pay this month, plus what she guessed were an extra $400 to $600 in expenses for her and her 9-month old daughter.
A few days ago, she said, she had been fired from another club, The Pink Pony, after another dancer who was accused of smoking in the bathroom blamed Gloria. "I always smoke outside," said Gloria, who, like others interviewed in this story, would give only her first name. "But they told me not to come back."
So on Thursday, at about 10:30 p.m. -- just as Romney was re-introducing himself to America -- Gloria walked into Alibi and introduced herself to the manager, Mike, who liked her enough to let her dance the same night.
With its dark corners, smoky air and peeling brass-painted poles, Alibi was a world away from the brightly lit stagecraft of the Republican National Convention. But inside, the patrons and employees represented slices of America that each party will need to win over in the coming months if they hope to be in the White House in November.
As Gloria took the stage, Angel, a 58-year-old former Air Force mechanic who considers himself a regular, was sipping a Heineken. Obama, he said, had disappointed him.
"I'm a military guy, so I always voted Republican until Obama," Angel said. "But I believed [Obama] was really different. Now I'm an agnostic, so I don't think I'm going to vote."
For Democrats, voter apathy -- especially in swing states like Florida -- ranks among their greatest fears. According to a Gallup poll, only 39 percent of Democrats said they were "more enthusiastic" than usual about voting in this year's election, compared to 61 percent in 2008.
But Angel, who is Catholic, was frank about the fact that Romney's Mormon faith would also be a prohibitive factor for him. "I'd never vote for a Mormon," he said.
The question of how the GOP's largely Christian voters will view Romney's Mormonism at the polls has been the subject of much speculation. According to Gallup, 18 percent of Americans say they will not vote for a Mormon for president. But as with other biases, like race, there may be plenty more who think it, but won't say it.
Romney, a former bishop in the Mormon church, has largely avoided talking about his faith during his presidential campaign. In his convention speech on Thursday, he emphasized his record of service to members of his congregation, but stopped short of addressing how his religious beliefs might influence his policy decisions.
For much of the night, Angel sat next to a Mindy, a blonde, fit, 28-year-old dancer and the mother of a 9-year-old daughter whose picture she proudly showed off.
Mindy explained that she had recently passed the aptitude test needed to join the U.S. Marines, and was awaiting word on which jobs she would be eligible for so that she could formally enroll.
Wearing a brief black dress that she would later peel off to reveal a g-string and pasties, Mindy described how she planned to start a day-care center for working moms when she left the armed forces. "Not some fancy place for rich people, but something for moms like me, who can't afford to pay for day care," she said. Her daughter lives with Mindy's parents, she said.
In many ways, Mindy could easily be a Romney voter. She was raised in a conservative household, she said, plans to join the military, and hopes to start a small business -- voting blocs that Republicans traditionally have carried in elections. And despite how much she makes, which places her firmly in the lower-income levels more likely to favor Democrats -- Mindy said she makes about $1,400 a month, of which $750 goes to pay her rent -- she said the only thing that's holding her back from voting for Romney is her perception of his stance on abortion.
"I just can't vote for someone who wouldn't let me choose what to do with my body," she said, alternating sips between a bottle of water and a shot of menthol-flavored liquor. "I mean, what if you got raped?"
This week, the Republican Party in Tampa adopted a platform that called for outlawing abortion under any circumstance -- including in cases of rape and incest. Romney himself has said he would uphold a woman's right to terminate a pregnancy in these cases, and in order to protect the health of the mother. But for Mindy, it's all the same.
Her response underscores the dilemma Romney faces as he hopes to overcome a wide gap in support among women voters nationwide. According to a CBS News poll this month, 51 percent of women said they would vote for Obama, compared to 41 percent who said they would vote for Romney.
Over the course of three hours at Alibi, however, one issue stood out more than any other: jobs. The people there wanted to work harder, for longer hours, at more challenging tasks.
The club's manager, Mike, a burly guy in a black T-shirt and jeans with spiky gray hair and tattoos on both forearms, said he was only moonlighting at Alibi until his regular job as a construction worker picked up again.
"After 2007, all the work here disappeared," Mike said. "Now, if there's work in town, they only hire Mexicans, and they pay 'em eight bucks an hour," or about 30 cents more than the state's minimum wage of $7.67. "I refuse to work for $8 an hour. I've been doing construction for 20 years, and I won't take being paid nothing."
It was the same issue that Romney emphasized in his speech across town that night. "It doesn’t take a special government commission to tell us what America needs," Romney told the crowd at the convention. "What America needs is jobs. Lots of jobs."
But despite Romney's economic message, Mike, like Mindy, said he would not be supporting the former Massachusetts governor. Romney's wealth, he said, was a turnoff.
"I'm voting Democrat," he said when asked about the upcoming presidential election. "I don't know much about politics, but I know that the rich stick with the rich."
For Gloria, the election was the last thing on her mind as she dragged herself across the dark, mirrored stage on her knees, shaking her butt like Jell-O. Like many other women here in the strip-club capital of America, she was just hoping to maintain a basic standard of living and support her family.
Her baby's father, who lives with her and her family, can't find work. Her mother is in jail, she said, awaiting sentencing in November after she was convicted of driving a car that was used in a robbery.
"She didn't even know the guy was stealing," Gloria said, as if pleading with a judge. "But she had the [driver's] license, and now there ain't no money for bail or nothing."
She began stripping about three months ago in order to make some quick cash.
As the clock rolled past midnight, elated Republican convention-goers fanned out across the city for a third night of lavish parties, largely sponsored by the corporate interests and super PACs, which expect to spend hundreds of millions of dollars influencing voters in the next two months.
Poor Americans like Gloria, however, will likely remain largely invisible. Neither Obama nor Romney has spoken on the campaign trail about how to help the more than 46 million Americans living below the poverty line.
As Gloria danced at Alibi, no one got up to tip her. In fact, it seemed few people noticed her at all.
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