TAMPA (CNN) -- 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, Minnesota, and Denver. Ads for prostitutes and escorts jumped 25% to 40%. 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.
Most "gentleman's clubs" are enthusiastically gearing up for the Republicans. At 2001 Odyssey, they're hiring dancers, spiffing up the stage and spaceship VIP rooms, and erecting a tented red carpet at the back door to shield patrons from prying paparazzi.
Across town, at a club quaintly named Thee DollHouse, they're finishing a $1.5 million face-lift. Waitresses and shot girls sport red, white and blue Wonder Woman corsets. And the porn star known for her resemblance to a certain former vice-presidential candidate -- Lisa Ann of Hustler's "Nailin' Paylin" videos -- has been signed for a "stimulating keynote undress."
"I'll be getting topless," Lisa Ann says over the phone from Los Angeles. "You betcha I'm excited. It's going to be a lot of fun." She says she's an Obama supporter but is grateful to Alaska's former governor for the career boost. She adds that her politics tend to be liberal on most issues -- except for guns.
At Tampa's most famous strip club, things are lower key. Redner says the Mons Venus doesn't need gimmicks. He might hire a few extra dancers, he says, but the club's reputation is its own draw. If customers line up in the street during the convention, he might raise the $20 cover charge or stay open 24 hours instead of closing at 5 a.m.
No doubt, getting naked pays. There are about 4,000 strip clubs across the country, says Spencer, executive director of the club owners' association. Depending on demographics, they can pull in anywhere from $200,000 a year in Sandusky, Ohio, to $500,000 a week in Miami. Spencer says strip clubs in a city hosting the political conventions can expect their take to quadruple.
And that 6-foot lap dance ban is rarely enforced. Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn says the police will be too busy during the convention to raid strip clubs.
"Are we going to be running around strip clubs checking IDs? Probably not," Buckhorn says. "It's not even on the radar."
Strip club king
People who make a living at Tampa's strip clubs say they owe it all to Redner. Bring up his name and competitive banter invariably turns to reverent tones. It's hard to find anyone at the clubs with a bad thing to say about Redner. He's emerged victorious from decades of court battles as a local folk hero and champion of the First Amendment.
Redner occupies Tampa's big intersection of sex, free speech and politics. He says he has gone to jail 150 times after police raids on his clubs. He ran for city, county and state office "eight or nine times," and always lost. When he won a cash verdict from the city, he bought a vacant lot and turned it into a park.
And then he let Occupy Tampa camp there.
"Joe is a great guy. What an awesome man," says Warren Colozzo, a flashy former bodybuilder who co-owns Thee DollHouse, a rival topless club that serves alcohol.
"The fight he fought was for all of us," agrees Kleinhans as he gives a tour of his club, 2001 Odyssey, which is across the street from Redner's Mons Venus. "He did a fabulous thing for all of us."
Even Redner's onetime political nemesis, Buckhorn, the mayor and author of the 6-foot lap dance ban, is cordial: "Joe and I go toe-to-toe on this issue. I respect how he treats me." Buckhorn says Redner even voted for him.
"Are Joe and I ever going to dine together? Probably not," the mayor continues. "He's part of Tampa's fabric. He's a colorful part of it. He stands up for what he believes in. He deserves the accolades for it."
Redner once famously refused to shake the hand of a former mayor, Dick Greco, after they sparred over the lap dance king's plans to open a nude club in historic Ybor City. "I don't have anything against him at all," Greco says now. The slight, he says, was just Redner playing to the cameras.
"Joe plays it to the hilt. He became the star of that kind of place," Greco says.
No one who might have less charitable things to say about Redner is willing to go on the record. His recent battle with lung cancer may be a reason.
He looks lean and sinewy as he sits down for lunch, a heaping pile of greens and beans. Redner, who used to smoke, drink and use marijuana and cocaine, is now a raw vegan.
Back at the office, with walls that also serve as his scrapbook, Redner pulls out his cell phone and shows off medical images of his lungs. One features a large, angry-looking tumor that seems to take up a quarter of his left lung. The other shows a shrunken version of the growth. In just a year, he says, he's gone from a diagnosis of Stage 4 lung cancer to full remission.
He has shed the ponytail and bushy mustache of his early days as Florida's version of Larry Flynt. In khaki shorts, a T-shirt and ball cap, he could be anybody's Florida grandpa. But then he goes to work.
"What 72-year-old man doesn't want to be around pretty nude ladies?" he says. "It's not sexual to me. It's like looking at a master's painting."
He has a reputation for treating employees and dancers with respect.
"I walk up to Joe and say, 'Thank you,' " confides Monica Fox, a blond, slender Mons Venus dancer who is 40 but appears much younger. "I wouldn't be able to work at this job if it wasn't for Joe. He fought for it. If he hadn't stood up and fought, none of this would be here for any of us."
She says there's no funny stuff with Redner, unlike other, nameless club owners she calls "glorified pimps."
There was nothing in his early life to hint at the multimillionaire Redner would become. He was born in Hackensack, New Jersey, and raised in nearby Summit, but moved to Florida with his mother and brother when he was 8. Dad was out of the picture.
He wasn't a very impressive student. He says his brain works differently, follows its own logic. Other kids poked fun at him for being slow, and he says the teasing left him with low self-esteem.
"I didn't learn like other people do. If it's not rational to me, my mind won't accept it." And so, he dropped out of high school. He stacked boxes in a warehouse, learned he was a decent carpenter, rode the carnival circuit for a while and tracked people down for a bail bondsman. He liked to stop off for a few drinks after work, which is how he wound up managing a "go-go bar" for the late Pat Matassini, who opened 2001 Odyssey in 1969 and put the spaceship on top. Back then, all dancers wore pasties and G-strings.
While driving home one early morning in June 1975, Redner heard about a Supreme Court decision on the car radio. The justices ruled that nudity in movies shown at drive-in theaters was protected by free speech. It got Render thinking that maybe strippers were protected, too, and that it was high time to get rid of the pasties and the G-strings.
"Dance is one of the oldest forms of speech around," Redner says. "What business is it of anybody what two consenting adults do sexually in private? And by private, I mean nobody is there who doesn't want to see it."
So began a 25-year battle with the city of Tampa, which promptly banned nude dancing.
His first club was called the Night Gallery. In 1982, Redner opened the Mons Venus, and police responded with repeated raids. Sometimes, Redner recalls, he'd be arrested three times on the same day and hauled off to jail.
"It just went on and on," he says. He posted signs outside the club, with messages such as: "Come and watch your local vice squad at work."
He responded to the heat by hiring shifts of dancers so his stage was never empty, even after a raid. He also fought back in court. In 1995 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the ordinance that earlier sent Redner to jail for 50 days was unconstitutional.
He says he was usually drunk, or at least half-drunk, when he railed against the police and church people who picketed the Mons Venus. But in 1983, he was charged with cocaine possession and put on five years' probation. He stopped drinking and smoking and doing all drugs except marijuana, which he says he smoked about five times a day until his cancer diagnosis last year.
He continued to fight. In 1999, Redner arrived late at a City Council meeting and cursed everyone when he wasn't allowed to speak about the lap-dance ordinance. He rallied so many supporters -- and ticked off so many rivals -- that a later meeting had to be moved to the Convention Center to accommodate the crowd.
A popular YouTube video shows him shouting down a balding man with a bullhorn who is standing outside the Mons Venus, urging "sinner" patrons to repent. Redner blasts an air horn, repeatedly calls the man a penis and shouts that his God isn't a hater.
In 2002, he was arrested at a Jeb Bush rally attended by President George W. Bush. He was charged with picketing outside the specified protest zone -- which he was protesting. This time, there wasn't a nude woman in sight.
He sued in federal court, alleging the arrest violated his First Amendment rights. The case was later dismissed, but he still has the sign picket in his office. It says: "Don't let these crooks fool you."
During a 2004 campaign for county commissioner, Redner got into an argument with a conservative guest on a cable talk show and called him "fat." The man stalked off the set, and then tossed a chair at Redner.
He filed another federal lawsuit against Hillsborough County after it passed an ordinance refusing to recognize gay pride events. He "came out" in a 2005 court filing, which was seen as a strategic move to gain standing. He says he has never had a homosexual relationship but is "gay in my mind."
Growing up in the House of Redner wasn't easy. He has five children with four different women, two of whom he married. His daughter, Teresa Redner-Maida, remembers being teased about her father at school. She says classmates weren't allowed to come over to her house. But by the time Redner's grandson, Kyle Burns, was growing up, nobody was shocked.
Both wound up working at Redner Enterprises, which is housed in a warehouse around the corner from the Mons Venus. Burns, who also worked on his grandfather's political campaigns, says he hopes to go to law school.
Through all the court fights and unsuccessful political campaigns, Redner amassed a fortune. He estimated his wealth at $18 million five years ago in an interview with the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times). He is reluctant to talk about money these days, other than to say the recession has reduced business at the Mons Venus by about half. He is branching out into other areas, investing in the Cigar City Brewery, which operates out of the warehouse and is run by his son Joey.
Redner would like to protest -- and perhaps even get arrested -- at the Republican National Convention, but he will be out of town. The Association of Club Executives is hosting its own convention in Las Vegas and plans to honor Redner, who will give the keynote address.
While the boss is away, Lorry Kasner will mind the Mons. She's the day manager and has worked with Redner for 26 years. "He's a very smart man," she says. "Everything I know is from him. This is my world."
Kasner, who says she lost 50 pounds following Redner's raw vegan diet, started dancing at strip clubs when she was 19. Her father was a traveling evangelist, so for the first seven years she told her parents she cleaned houses for a living.
She was a single mom, and for a while her parents cared for her son. But after less than a year as a Mons Venus dancer, Kasner started making enough money to raise him herself. She bought a two-story house with a pool in a nice part of town. Best of all, she could work only when she wanted.
"I knew what I had. And I knew what other people didn't have," she says. "I see people struggle and work 40 hours a week, or 60 hours a week, and not have what I had dancing four days a week."
Now she is management, and part of her job requires making sure the dancers are presentable and the rules are followed: no drugs, no prostitution, no liquor, no smoking inside, no touching down there. The Mons also differs from other clubs in a big way. There are no private VIP rooms. Lap dances take place out in the open.
Most clubs have house moms overseeing the dancers. Leaving men in charge of those details strikes even the most jaded pros as creepy. Strippers work the clubs as independent contractors, in effect renting space on the stage. Some clubs take a healthy cut of the tips and lap dance money and tack on fines and fees. One charges dancers $50 if they put their pointy stiletto heels on the seat cushions.
Redner says he makes all his money at the door -- $20 a head on a regular night, $50 during the Super Bowl -- and doesn't take it away from the dancers. The way he sees it, happy strippers make for happy customers.
Half a dozen exotic dancers chatter and joke as they come into the Mons dressing room. Kasner checks their hair, nails, makeup and costumes. No bathing suits permitted, sexy lingerie only.
Time for the booty inspection. Since these dancers perform in the altogether, total body grooming is mandatory. No nubs, please.
"Did you shave?" Kasner asks as a pair of dancers bend over. Even though two men -- CNN's photographer and videographer -- are doing their thing in the dressing room, the strippers are unfazed. Their attitude seems clinical, a byproduct of years spent swaying and jiggling and undressing for strangers.
In another locker room across town, house mom Wendy Karafas hands out patches of flesh-colored surgical tape, which she has cut into pasties. They serve liquor here at Thee DollHouse, so dancers have to cover their nipples and thongs must be two fingers wide at that key Y intersection. There are plenty of private VIP booths, but the house rules are strict.
"No touching. No grinding. It's a clean club," Karafas says.
At 55, she has the warm, soothing look of your best friend's mom. She has worked at banks and law firms, and was making and selling crystal jewelry in tanning salons when strippers started buying her creations. She was invited to Thee DollHouse and set up shop in the locker room.
"I'd never been in a gentleman's club before," she recalls. "I came in here and I was scared to death. But I was welcomed with open arms. I love it here."
Eventually she was asked to be the house mom. There is a lot of joking and laughter in this locker room.
A stripper named Sasha balances on 8-inch, clear Plexiglas heels and turns her backside toward Karafas, who is seated by the door. "OK, Mom, I'm ready to go," she says, submitting to a thong inspection.
Shoes, check. Nails, check. Garter, check. Fishnets, check. Tape, check. Hair and makeup, check and check. She's good to go.
Sasha's sister, Ya-Ya, bounds in, tells Karafas a dirty joke and spots this correspondent.
She licks my face like a puppy and throws a long, fishnet-clad leg over my shoulder. I am standing up, but I think I've just gotten my first lap dance.