Published: May 12, 2010 10:33 PM EDT

 OXON HILL, Md.  - Republicans choose Tampa as the site of their 2012 presidential convention, hoping the swing state of Florida will help them defeat President Barack Obama.

A Republican National Committee panel recommended the Gulf Coast city during a closed-door meeting, rejecting GOP strongholds of Salt Lake City and Phoenix.

The decision came amid calls from Hispanic groups and others to boycott Arizona after it adopted a law to crack down on illegal immigrants, although party members insisted their decision against Phoenix was not linked to that legislation.

"We got it!" RNC Secretary Sharon Day, a Floridian, shouted into a hotel hallway as she danced out of the closed-door meeting. "I think that we are one of the bellwether states...We'll be stronger for 2012. It will give us an opportunity to strengthen our volunteer base," she said.

Florida, with its hefty 27 electoral votes, decided the 2000 election for George W. Bush. Obama won the state in 2008. "This is a very important state politically," Al Austin, chairman of the host committee, said in Tampa.

"There are also a lot of people who can step up and make the kind of contributions we need." Austin brushed off reporters' questions regarding whether the committee could raise more than $40 million to stage the convention.

"We're not even going to think about that," Austin said. Political conventions are a logistical test for any city, as thousands of people flock into the region, test infrastructure and bring in millions of dollars. Tampa officials said transportation plans and security top the list of priorities.

"The host committee's hard work and dedication resulted in a tremendous bid that we are confident will produce a successful event," RNC Chairman Michael Steele said. Walking away from reporters after the meeting, Steele insisted that the Arizona immigration uproar played no part in the convention choice. He said it was "purely a business decision."

Holly Hughes, a national committee member from Michigan who led the selection process, also told reporters that it was a decision based on technical requirement, not politics or personalities "That was not part of our decision whatsoever," she said. "It's hotel space, the delegate experience - are we going to be able to accommodate the media; will the venue hold what we need it to hold?"

Personalities, though, are the sideshow of the event slated to be largely staged at the St. Pete Times Forum. As the committee was rejoicing over the announcement, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist was changing his party affiliation from Republican to "none" in his hometown of St. Petersburg. That cleared the way for Crist to seek the open Senate seat as an independent without first winning an uphill Republican primary campaign against tea party favorite Marco Rubio.

As governor, Crist will be the honorary event chairman for a party he left. He said he would work on the convention "as much as a I can." "Whether it was a Republican convention or a Democratic convention, it wouldn't matter to me. As a Floridian, I'm really proud it's in our state. That's what matters first," Crist said.

Presidential hopefuls typically decamp to Florida during the final weeks of a campaign, and nominating conventions dominate local news coverage and help drive the parties' message to voters who might otherwise ignore the formalities.

Republicans met in Minneapolis-St. Paul in 2008, hoping to swing Minnesota to the GOP. It went for Obama. Democrats similarly met in Denver in the hope of making the Mountain West friendly territory. The president won Colorado. It is a GOP strategy, though, that has worked infrequently.

The last time Republicans held a convention in a swing state and won was when Ronald Reagan took Michigan in 1980 over Jimmy Carter. The selection committee's recommendation still needs formal approval when the RNC meets in August in Kansas City, Mo., but that is considered a given.

The last Republican convention in Florida was in Miami in 1972 when the party nominated President Richard M. Nixon and Vice President Spiro Agnew.