Evan Vucci, Associated Press
TAMPA, Fla. — Mitt Romney's Republican National Convention was sputtering to life Monday with the lonely banging of a gavel in a mostly empty hall. It will hit full speed on Tuesday, just as forecasters say Tropical Storm Isaac could reach hurricane strength and make landfall somewhere between Mississippi and New Orleans.
"Our sons are already in Tampa and they say it's terrific there, a lot of great friends. And we're looking forward to a great convention," Romney said as he prepared to rehearse his convention speech at a New Hampshire high school auditorium.
He said he hoped those in the storm's path are "spared any major destruction" but indicated there were no thoughts of canceling the convention in Tampa, where Isaac's heavy rain had all but passed.
Under the reworked convention schedule, organizers planned a pro forma opening Monday afternoon to last just 10 minutes. Party chairman Reince 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 rising red ink during the convention.
Tom Del Beccaro, a California delegate and chair of the state GOP, predicted the one-day delay in full convention events would supercharge the rest of the week's meeting.
"I think there's going to be a lot of bottled up energy, and I think that's going to show," he said.
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 it risked the juxtaposition of Republicans partying as the storm batters toward land — 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," Party Chairman 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. Planners said Monday's speakers would be worked into the schedule later in the week.
"We're going to continue with our Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday schedule," said Russ Schriefer, the chief convention planner.
At least one speaker bowed out. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal announced Monday that he would not attend as the storm gathered strength and bore down on his home state.
As the weather threat to Tampa diminished, delegates focused on party message and the near-term task of making Romney the nominee and working to defeat Obama in November.
"There's a mission here," said Gary Harkins, a delegate from Brandon, Miss. "We have to nominate a candidate for president. Our mission is to save America from becoming a socialistic state."
Sen. Rob Portman delivered a message to the Ohio delegation that was echoed at meetings and news conferences all across Tampa — the Obama presidency has been a failure.
"It's time to stop blaming others and take responsibility," Portman said at a breakfast session. "There are families all over Ohio that are suffering as a result. He hasn't measured up to his own standards. "
The weather was a constant concern for some. Jeanne Luckey of Ocean Springs, Miss., whose family lost a beachside home to Hurricane Katrina, said friends were helping secure their inland home for Isaac.
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