So just what kind of circus is coming to town when the Democrats arrive in 2012? Here are a few of the featured acts:

Button-down Charlotte will become Party Central with unions and corporate America picking up the tab.

Denver, the Democrats' host city in 2008, was the site of an estimated 1,200 parties during convention week.

And footing the bill for many of them in Denver and also in Minneapolis-St. Paul - host of the 2008 Republican convention - were unions, corporations, lobbying firms and an assortment of rich individuals. Together, they donated more than $112 million to the two cities' host committees.

The partying traditionally starts early in the morning, with state delegation breakfasts, and lasts into the night, with cocktail parties, concerts and lavish dinners honoring senators, House members, and other political leaders.

State and federal ethics laws passed in recent years have made it more difficult for lobbyists to pay for gifts or meals for officeholders and their staffs.

But creative loopholes have been found. In Denver, for example, AT&T and other corporations signed up as sponsors of Blue Night, an event honoring the Blue Dog Coalition of fiscally conservative Democrats in Congress. Other companies paid $25,000 to $50,000 apiece to fete the New Democrat Coalition, a group of moderate Democrats.

Back in 2004, when Republicans met in New York, U.S. Rep. Sue Myrick of Charlotte joined a dozen campaign donors aboard the blue-hulled Enterprise V, a gleaming 168-foot yacht moored off the Hudson River at Chelsea Pier.

The yacht came courtesy of its owner, the Amway Corp.

Across town, N.C. delegates partied at a reception in the Rainbow Room at Rockefeller Center. It was sponsored by Duke Power and Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris.

Look for the partying to continue in the Queen City, with everything from all-day hospitality suites to celebrity golf outings, courtesy of every well-heeled donor from the AFL-CIO to Wells Fargo.

Time Warner Cable Arena, the likely venue, could be turned into a guarded fortress.

Conventions can be fun, but there's dark side, too: In a post-911 world, the well-attended quadrennial parties are tempting targets for terrorists. Especially so if the president of the United States will be among the revelers.

Translation: Expect armed guards, bomb-sniffing dogs, surveillance cameras, metal detectors, squadrons of helicopters, and, for delegates, airport-style scrutiny by pistol-wearing officers from the U.S. Secret Service.

In Boston in 2004, the first convention after 9-11, the FleetCenter - home of the Boston Celtics - was encircled by 8-foot-high black iron fences.

A few weeks later, in New York, when then-President Bush was re-nominated at Madison Square Garden, security was even tighter, partly to combat the additional threat of violent protests. More than 40,000 officers fortified the city and strung a net so tight that apples and oranges, considered possible lethal objects if tossed, were confiscated. Police peered into approaching cabs at every hotel favored by delegates. And in the Garden, police, federal agents or private security were posted at every hallway intersection, every stairwell, even near the bathrooms.

In Denver in 2008, Obama decided to give his acceptance speech before 70,000 people at Invesco Field. A similar scenario in Charlotte, starting at Time Warner Cable Arena and ending with a finale at Bank of America Stadium could further complicate all the precautions.

If recent conventions are any guide, non-delegates living in Charlotte will also feel the effects of the stepped-up security. Parts of roads may be closed, bus and light rail commuters may be limited to carry-ons no bigger than a purse or briefcase, and downtown businesses may tell employees to avoid all the hassle by working from home - or taking a vacation.

The Queen City may get limited exposure on the networks, but it'll be wall-to-wall Charlotte on cable.

ABC, CBS and NBC are likely to stick with regular programming until 10 p.m. each night, then provide an hour of coverage that usually spotlights the Big Speech of the Day.

But viewers who tune in to cable - especially CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC - will get multiple views of Charlotte's impressive skyline as well as reports from all over the city.

Just imagine: Charlotteans with no connection to the convention won't be able to walk five feet without bumping into a reporter and camera crew. Isn't that MSNBC's Morning Joe doing a show from an uptown Starbuck's? Isn't that CNN's John King in Union County, interviewing people about whether Obama has a shot at re-taking North Carolina - and other parts of the South - in 2012? Isn't that pollster Frank Luntz of Fox News' Hannity show, asking a group of voters assembled at Central Piedmont Community College to react to the president's acceptance speech?

Don't forget the foreign media, which will introduce Charlotte to the world.

Along with the U.S. press, about 1,700 foreign journalists came to Boston in 2004 to cover the Democrats' anointing of the Kerry-Edwards ticket.

Expect the same invasion of Charlotte. For viewers and readers back in Europe and Latin America and Asia, they'll be explaining the American political system - and introducing a city with big banks and fast cars, a place named for a long-ago Queen of England and the birthplace of evangelist Billy Graham.

In 2004, Japanese journalists ran admiring stories about then-N.C. Sen. John Edwards' refusal to engage in negative campaigning during his run that year for president. Mexican journalists, meanwhile, were put off by Edwards' tough talk against NAFTA.

In 2012, delegates and politicians from the Carolinas could get major air time on foreign radio and TV. Judging from the foreign coverage of past conventions, they might be asked about Obama's re-election chances, about American foreign policy and about local customs. One possible question: BBQ? Please explain.

And did we mention the army of bloggers that will encamp here?

The Internet has played a limited role in the last few conventions. But the 2012 confabs in Charlotte and Tampa could well go down in history as the first ones in which bloggers for ever-updating Web sites - Politico, Huffington Post, the Daily Beast, Talking Points Memo, RealClearPolitics and Politics Daily - changed the dynamics of coverage. These online-only journalists will compete for hourly scoops with reporters from the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN and - at least during the Dems' meeting - the Charlotte Observer.

Political junkies will stay glued to their computers 24/7 for the latest bits of info coming out of Charlotte, N.C. - the dateline that will matter in late summer 2012.

Protesters galore will also call Charlotte home - at least for a week.

Look for not one protest rally, but many. Every day.

When the last sitting president was re-nominated - George W. Bush in 2004 - New York City was the scene of a host of loud, angry rallies.

Demonstrators opposed to the Iraq War gathered en mass in Union Square Park and in Central Park. Thousands of abortion-rights protesters marched across the Brooklyn Bridge.

And then there was the World's Largest Unemployment Line, with a pink slip-waving group stretching from Wall Street to Madison Square Garden.

By week's end, New York Police had arrested 1,821 protesters.

The same year, Boston corralled all protesters into a tight security zone, where they were kept far away from the Democratic action at the FleetCenter.

In Charlotte, President Obama's coronation could bring protests on all sides: on the left from anti-war protesters opposed to U.S. involvement in Afghanistan; on the right from Tea Partiers; and, depending on how the economy is faring, from groups protesting high unemployment or steep budget cuts.

And get ready for daily sightings of left-leaning celebs.

Movie stars, rockers, athletes, TV newscasters - they'll all converge on Charlotte to rub shoulders with politicians and entertain delegates.

In 2004, the tabloid Boston Herald offered readers a handy checklist to spot lefty celebrities.

Among the head-turners who showed up: Willie Nelson, Patti LaBelle, Black Eyed Peas, Glenn Close, Meg Ryan, Michael Moore, Jerry Springer, John Mellencamp, Sarah Jessica Parker, Little Richard and Boston's own Ben Affleck.

Congressional Quarterly, which published daily during convention week, kept track of all the celebrities in town with a column called Hollywood on the Charles (as in the Charles River).

Hmmm. Fast-forward to 2012, for the Observer's daily dish of celeb sightings in Hollywood on the Catawba.

Expect to run into anti-Democrats, too.

Republicans will nominate their candidate in Tampa in 2012, but that doesn't mean they'll all steer clear of Charlotte.

In 2004, the Bush-Cheney campaign sent then-Mayor Pat McCrory of Charlotte to Boston to raise doubts - via national TV and radio interviews - about another North Carolinian, then-Sen. John Edwards, scheduled to be nominated that night at the Democrats' vice presidential candidate.

At the same convention, Democratic delegate Pat Patton of Charlotte, then 86, ran into a famous face in the ladies room. But at first she couldn't remember what the other woman was famous for.

You look familiar. Are you famous? Have I seen you on TV?

The famous woman's response: You wouldn't like me. I'm a Republican.

Later, on the convention floor, it dawned on Patton that the woman was none other than Ann Coulter, a conservative pundit and Fox News regular who had authored such anti-Democratic books as Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism and High Crimes and Misdemeanors: The Case Against Bill Clinton.

Patton decided to return fire. So she tracked down Coulter in a nearby TV booth.

You're right: I don't like you, she told Coulter. Then she called the pundit something that rhymes with witch.

Some N.C. congressmen may be no-shows - even if the convention is practically next door.

If Obama's poll numbers look anemic in '12, expect some Democratic candidates further down the ballot to put some distance between themselves and the president by staying away from Charlotte.

N.C. Gov. Bev Perdue, up for a tough re-election, might be tempted. But she'll likely make the trip from Raleigh to campaign in Charlotte and soak up some national publicity as the host governor.

But the group staying home could include moderate-to-conservative congressmen from North Carolina - Heath Shuler of Waynesville, Mike McIntyre of Lumberton, even Larry Kissell of Biscoe. If they're in tight races themselves, they could decide to make a declaration of independence from Obama and other liberals in the national Democratic Party by playing hooky from the convention.

It's happened before: In 2004, the state's Democratic candidates for governor (Mike Easley) and U.S. senator (Erskine Bowles) were nowhere to be seen in Boston, even though the Democratic delegates were there partly to nominate Tar Heel senator John Edwards for vice president.

The New York Times and Associated Press contributed.

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