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By CARL STRAUMSHEIM
Brian Harlin (right), 45, owner of the Glen Burnie-based GOP Shoppe, assists a customer at the Tampa Bay Times Forum in Tampa, Fla. Harlin is the official campaign merchandise vendor of the 2012 Republican National Convention. (Photo: Carl Straumsheim)
TAMPA, Fla. -- As Maryland's delegates to the Republican National Convention schmoozed with fellow convention goers at Sunday night's welcoming party here, Brian Harlin was nowhere to be seen.
He didn't board the bus Monday morning for lunch in Tampa's Ybor City neighborhood. He isn't even staying at the same hotel as his fellow delegates.
In addition to serving as one of Maryland's pledged delegates, Harlin works as the convention's master vendor -- a first for the Republican National Convention, which normally operates with several official vendors. That means his business, the Glen Burnie-based GOP Shoppe, supplies all the official merchandise to delegates and visitors eager to secure a piece of 2012 campaign memorabilia.
"When I signed on to be master vendor, that's my job. I came here to make this as profitable as possible for the host committee, for the city of Tampa," Harlin said. "I won't even get to go on the roller coasters at Busch Gardens."
The GOP Shoppe also handles official merchandise for the Romney campaign and the national Republican Party. The branch at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, open for three days during the 2012 Republican National Convention, carries about 50 different items -- everything from hats and T-shirts to beach towels, Christmas ornaments and jewelry.
"It's hard, because everything has to be American-made," Harlin said.
Much of the convention merchandise is manufactured in Florida to boost the local economy. Other campaign material is produced all across the country, including in Glen Burnie.
Even though the GOP Shoppe is the only campaign store at the convention, Harlin said the lack of competition among vendors isn't fazing his customers. "They just want something with a logo on it," he said.
Harlin, 45, also supplied merchandise to the 2001 and 2005 inaugurations of President George W. Bush and the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia. But after almost 25 years in the business, Harlin said he is considering an early retirement from convention work.
"It's a lot of work for not as much reward, the convention," Harlin said. "As my kids are getting older, I want to spend more time doing stuff with them, and you can't in politics, for the second you let up, somebody else is going to try to take it away from you."
Harlin also had open-heart surgery after a heart attack three years ago that he said was caused by work-related stress.
A Romney victory in November, however, could convince Harlin to work another campaign cycle, as a lot of the merchandise used this year would carry over to that election. And if not a reelection campaign, Harlin said he is at least prepared to work another inauguration.
"I'm the only Republican company who's done it before," Harlin said. "It's a one day thing, and it's close to home. I don't have to move all my stuff down here. I don't have to spend weeks away from my own."
Audrey Scott, a delegate representing Maryland's 1st Congressional District, said Harlin got the political bug in 1975 when he helped her pass out flyers in Bowie for her city council campaign.
"Brian Harlin is one of my Bowie boys," Scott said.
Harlin made the move to statewide politics in 1994, when he produced merchandise for Ellen Sauerbrey's campaign for governor. He would do the same in 1998.
"I would think it was the first time he also realized he could make a career of this and support a wife and family," Scott said. "When he first started out, he had to fight to get in with all the other established ones. But he was a go-getter and determined and persevered, and now he's the only one."