David Goldman, Associated Press
TAMPA, Fla. — Mitt Romney's Republican National Convention sputters to life Monday with the lonely banging of a gavel in a mostly empty hall, then hits full speed on Tuesday, just as forecasters say Tropical Storm Isaac could reach hurricane strength and make landfall somewhere along a stretch from New Orleans to the Florida Panhandle.
"We've got a great convention ahead," Romney said from New Hampshire as he headed into a high school auditorium Monday morning to rehearse his convention speech, suggesting that there were no thoughts of canceling the gathering. He said he hopes those in the storm's path are "spared any major destruction."
Party Chairman Reince Preibus, for his part, insisted the GOP can "have a great week" despite the storm bearing down on the Gulf Coast.
But Sally Bradshaw, a Florida Republican and longtime senior aide to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, was not so sanguine. "It's a mess all around and it's fraught with risk," she said. "It's not good for anybody — particularly the people impacted by the storm."
It was hardly the opening splash that convention planners had hoped for, and risked the juxtaposition of Republicans partying as the storm heads toward the gulf — almost exactly seven years after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans.
"Obviously we want to pray for anyone that's in the pathway of this storm," Priebus said Monday on NBC's "Today" show, "but the message is still the same: that all Americans deserve a better future and that this president ... didn't keep the promises he made in 2008."
The party hastily rewrote the convention script to present the extravaganza's prime rituals and headline speakers later in the week, and further changes were possible. Convention planners said Monday's speakers would be worked into the schedule later in the week.
It was a complication, at best, for a party determined to cast the close election as a referendum on President Barack Obama's economic stewardship and Romney as the best hope for jobs and prosperity.
The concern was two-fold: that Tampa, hosting thousands of GOP delegates, would get sideswiped by the storm; and that it would be unseemly to engage in days of political celebration if Isaac made a destructive landfall anywhere on U.S. soil.
"You can tone down the happy-days-are-here-again a bit," said Rich Galen, a veteran Republican consultant in Washington. "Maybe you don't have the biggest balloon drop in history."
Republicans hoped another distracting tempest would blow over, too, concerning abortion. The Obama campaign and its allies have doubled down in efforts to exploit remarks more than a week ago by Rep. Todd Akin, the GOP's candidate for a Senate seat from Missouri, that a woman's body has a way of preventing pregnancy in the case of a "legitimate rape." The claim is unsupported by medical evidence. The congressman quickly apologized but resisted Romney's pressure to drop out of the race.
Romney, in a Fox interview, said in comments broadcast Sunday that the fallout over Akin's remarks "hurts our party and I think is damaging to women," adding: "It really is sad, isn't it? With all the issues that America faces, for the Obama campaign to continue to stoop to such a low level."
In the reworked convention schedule released early Sunday evening, organizers planned a pro forma opening Monday afternoon, lasting no more than five minutes or so. Priebus was to gavel the convention to order, then immediately recess. Few delegates were expected to attend. In the only bit of convention-hall theater, a debt clock was to be set in motion, to tally the nation's red ink during the convention.
Speakers who had been scheduled for Monday were to start making the case against Obama, under the day's theme, "we can do better." That theme now will be threaded through the following three days, said Romney adviser Russ Schriefer, in charge of the convention's planning. "Even though the days will be abbreviated, I absolutely believe we'll be able to get our message out," he said.
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