Go-Go and Ezili are dancing cheek to cheek on a Friday night. That is to say they're spinning, glute to glute, on a polished chrome pole at a strip club.
A thunderstorm leaves puddles in the parking lot under a sign that boasts "OMG! These girls are hot!" The strippers try to "make it rain" inside, too: When patrons approve of their gyrations by slipping credit cards into machines that look like ATMs, the sound of recorded thunder rolls across the stage. Sure enough, $1 bills flutter from the ceiling onto the twirling twosome.
The joint is all mirrors, throbbing music, flashing neon and spotlights. Voluptuous young women wearing G-strings, stiletto heels and not much else teeter over the spanking new, Day-Glo acid trip of a carpet. But there's no liquor served here, because in Tampa they can't offer both booze and totally naked women under the same roof.
Speaking of the roof, there's a spaceship up there that features $80 semiprivate "quick launch" lap dances.
After the 10-minute show, which includes a gravity-defying "death lay" against the mirrored ceiling, Go-Go retires to another mirrored room, where she boots up a laptop and chats with fans online via a program called "Club Cam."
Ezili, who is studying to be a dental assistant, strolls in clutching two fat stacks of dollar bills -- $85 for her and $85 for Go-Go after the house takes its cut. Not bad, but they're hoping for a whole lot more when the Republicans come to town Monday. They're counting on the GOP convention to make it rain for a whole week.
Go-Go's boss says she's "the best pole girl in Tampa." She says it's hard work and should be an Olympic sport. She's in it for the money, and she swears it's only temporary. Pole dancing is not, as she puts it, "my career path."
A big plus, she says, is the friendship forged with other dancers. "We see each other naked every day," she explains, "so we kind of open up to each other."
The downside: Exotic dancing is rough on the physique, and the psyche.
"I have bad knees and my hips are going out," says Go-Go, who is all of 23 and has the word "trouble" tattooed across her left hip. "Most of the guys are nice, but some of them are disrespectful. Some guys think that because we do this they can talk to us in a certain way."
As for serious dating, forget about it. "I've tried to have a couple of relationships, but their insecurities take over. It's very hard to date a dancer."
Still, it's a living. You might even say a decent living. Exotic dancers here earn an average of $65,000 a year, according to numbers crunched by the Tampa Bay Times. A top performer like Go-Go, who was once a "denim specialist" at the mall, can make $3,000 a night when the Super Bowl is in town.
'Poles are open all night'
Many clubs have taken out ads inviting GOP delegates "to party like a liberal" in a city where the "poles are open all night." City officials say the convention, expected to draw more than 50,000 visitors, could be Tampa's biggest party ever. Imagine all those rainmakers.
A strip club with a spaceship on the roof seems an odd place to expect Republicans. At first blush, one might not equate lap dances with the political party that wraps itself in buttoned-down family values.
But at convention time, even upstanding men seem to seek out undressed women. When the Christian group Promise Keepers held a convention in Tampa a couple of years ago, attendees flooded the 2001 Odyssey, co-owner Jim Kleinhans recalls. They had such a good time that "they kept their promise to come back the next night."
Many male convention-goers, regardless of political stripe, are drawn to the sexual underground, according to a study conducted by Baylor University business professor Scott Cunningham. He examined sex ads placed online around the time of the 2008 conventions in St. Paul, Minn., and Denver. Ads for prostitutes and escorts jumped 25 percent to 40 percent. Cunningham offers a range of possible explanations -- chief among them anonymity, or what he calls "the reduced likelihood of future shaming."
Of course, the study could not measure ad responses. But Cunningham believes where there's smoke there's fire. He focused on prostitution and escort services, which are illegal and have public health implications. He didn't study the gentleman's clubs.
But if past conventions are any indicator, Republicans are likely to outspend Democrats heavily at topless bars and strip clubs, says Angelina Spencer. She heads the Association of Club Executives, an organization for the nation's 4,000 "gentleman's club" owners. The group talked to members in the host cities of past conventions.
"When we compared spending," Spencer notes, "the average showed Republicans spending $150 per person at an adult club, versus Democrats, who averaged $50 a person."
Asked about the notion of Republicans patronizing strip clubs, convention spokesman James Davis told CNN, "We're focused on having a great convention and nominating Mitt Romney."
But Tampa sees dollar signs. The city, which hosted four Super Bowls, is known as "the lap dance capital of the world." (Actually, it's not.) Las Vegas, New Orleans and Atlanta -- even Cincinnati -- have more strip clubs.
But Tampa has the rep.
Colorful club owner Joe Redner is at least partially responsible. He owns the Mons Venus and is variously known as "the father of the lap dance" and "the strip club king." He fought City Hall for decades over how much flesh his dancers could expose, and how close they could cozy up to customers. An ordinance prohibiting nude dancers from coming within 6 feet of anybody's lap stirred up a circus of protests and shouting matches 12 years ago and made headlines around the world.
No one can say for sure how many strip clubs operate within Tampa's city limits. Night Moves, a trade magazine for South Florida's adult entertainment industry, lists nine Tampa nude clubs in its directory and 17 "dance clubs." This month's cover features an elephant getting a lap dance.