Manhole covers near the Xcel Energy Center have been spot-welded into place, just in case anarchists plan on heaving them through expensive plate-glass windows.

A new $3.4 million network of spy-in-the-sky cameras punctuate downtown corners, allowing officers at St. Paul police headquarters to zoom in on everything via eight video screens in Room 540 -- the same room once used to store supplies left over from Y2K.

Whether this week's Republican National Convention is another exhaustively planned-for moment that passes glitch-free, or turns into something more chaotic, one thing's for sure: St. Paul, the Capital City with a bit of an inferiority complex, is about to tiptoe onto a stage never more brightly lit.

Sure, the Republicans have nominated a president around here before. But that was Benjamin Harrison 116 years ago and his renomination took place across the river in Minneapolis. And, true, Mikhail and Raisa Gorbachev stopped in St. Paul for walleye when the U.S.S.R. was still intact, but that was 18 years ago.

"We are the face of the United States to the world for four days," said Judge Kathleen Gearin.

Gearin, the chief justice in Ramsey County, told court workers at a recent pep talk as they prepared for Labor Day and probable night court sessions to process protesters.

"I know it sounds schmaltzy," Gearin said, "but we need to do the best job we can for the sake of the city, the state and for the sake of the country."

Highway exits have been closed leading into St. Paul. Fences have gone up all over town. And emergency foster care families have been put on call to care for the children of those arrested.

Precisely how many people will flood into St. Paul's narrow streets is anyone's guess, but 50,000 is a safe estimate when you lump together the GOP activists, reporters and protesters.

That's why Secret Service agents are starting to talk into their sleeves. Party planners are picking up their floral centerpieces. And nearly 15,000 members of the worldwide media -- including 200 bloggers, up from a dozen four years ago -- are firing up their laptops and cameras.

Never mind that the actual business of the convention is clear-cut. Nearly 2,400 delegates will formally send out John McCain to try to fend off his fellow senator, Barack Obama, and keep the White House in Republican hands. So the real action this week will be outside the Xcel Energy Center.

Streams of demonstrators plan to rage against the war in Iraq, poverty and other issues while more than 150 private parties will rage to the music of, among others, Styx and Charlie Daniels.

"Monday will be the busiest day in terms of protesters," Gearin said. "If there will be arrests, our intelligence tells us it will be Monday."

In her chat with court personnel, the judge stressed: "We should not be afraid of protests or people expressing opinions -- that's part of our country's history. It's only where it becomes violent or gets to the point where the delegates' right to assemble is jeopardized that we have to do something."

And history is in the back of everyone's mind. The bloody riots of 1968 mark the last election with an open-seat White House and an unpopular war, when the party in power held its Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

Call from Dick Cheney

While images of St. Paul spread across the globe this week, a reunion of sorts will take place among players involved in an April 18, 2001, cell phone call.

That's when then-state House Majority Leader Tim Pawlenty was about to launch a U.S. Senate bid -- until his phone rang. Vice President Dick Cheney was on the line, calling on behalf of President Bush, urging Pawlenty to consider a gubernatorial candidacy instead so Norm Coleman could make a Senate run.

They'll all be together again this week -- barring Hurricane Gustav diverting attention as it follows Katrina's devastating course toward New Orleans.

For now, Bush and Cheney are slated to speak to the delegates Monday night. Pawlenty, passed over as McCain's running mate, will nevertheless grab the podium twice this week. And Coleman will be lauded as the guy who, as St. Paul's mayor, got the sumptuous Xcel Energy Center built.

"We plan to walk up as close as we can and take pictures to send to relatives and friends," said Rita Warner, 58, who lives in an 1851 bungalow from the Millard Fillmore era in nearby Irvine Park. She can see the big red elephant GOP logo on the arena windows from her home.

She lives just across the line from the so-called "no-go zone," a tightly controlled perimeter around the Xcel Center that will be nearly impossible to penetrate unless you have credentials dangling around your neck.

The Travelers insurance company, based inside the zone, will shift hours from 5 a.m. to 2 p.m. to get workers out before nightly convention business heats up.

"We call it the corral and we'll have to go a little out of our way to get around, but I don't want to miss this," Warner said. "I'm mostly excited with some apprehension, but I really don't foresee chaos."

Some area retailers foresee a wash, at best, although some are already cashing in.

"We're afraid we'll lose our regular customers and it will be a loss," said Doug Lamb, owner of the popular downtown popcorn and candy store, Candyland, which opened in 1932 as Franklin Roosevelt was unseating Herbert Hoover.

At Wescott Station, an antique shop a few blocks from the arena, an "I Like Ike" campaign poster and a Spiro Agnew T-shirt highlight a display window.

"A CNN producer just bought a $150 cedar chest and we're shipping it to Atlanta," said Kurt Wescott, the manager.

Down the block, where the Eagle Street Grille has struggled for five years across Kellogg Boulevard from the arena, co-owner Joe Kasel is all smiles. He rented out the whole joint to CNN for the duration.

While Minneapolis is hosting several meetings and parties and filling up its newer hotels with conventioneers, St. Paul will step out of the shadow of its more cosmopolitan fraternal twin.

"All eyes are going to be on St. Paul for once," Kasel said. "St. Paul has always been second to Minneapolis and nobody knows about us, so the exposure St. Paul is going to get is going to be great. This is big for us."

Staff writer Jean Hopfensperger contributed to this report. Curt Brown • 612-673-4767