Mary Altaffer, Associated Press
TAMPA, Fla. — Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan took his party's national convention spotlight Wednesday night as Republicans sought to turn the White House campaign back to the sluggish economy. He was accepting the vice presidential nomination at a gathering struggling for attention as Tropical Storm Isaac cast a pall from the nearby northern Gulf Coast.
In a secondary role if only for a moment, presidential candidate Mitt Romney accused Democratic President Barack Obama of backing "reckless defense cuts" amounting to $1 trillion. "There are plenty of places to cut in a federal budget that now totals over $3 trillion. But defense is not one of them," Romney said in remarks that referred elliptically to the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Romney spoke to the American Legion in Indianapolis as his aides in Florida scripted an economy-and-veterans-themed program in their own convention hall and kept a wary eye on Isaac. The storm, downgraded from a hurricane to a tropical storm, was threatening levees in the New Orleans area almost exactly seven years after the calamitous Hurricane Katrina.
Romney delivers his own nationally televised acceptance speech Thursday night in the final act of his own convention. The political attention then shifts to the Democrats, who open their own convention on Tuesday to nominate Obama and Vice President Joseph Biden for a second term.
Deep into a two-week stretch of national gatherings, the race for the White House is in a sort of political black hole where the day-to-day polls matter little if at all as voters sort through their impressions.
Despite the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on television commercials by the candidates, their parties and supporting groups, the race has appeared unusually close since Romney clinched his nomination last spring.
Only eight or so battleground states appear to be competitive, although Republicans say they hope to expand the campaign after Labor Day, particularly in industrial states struggling to recover from the worst economic recession since the Great Depression.
Yet for all of the attack ads and inflammatory rhetoric, the two campaigns tiptoed carefully around the storm ravaging the Gulf Coast, vying to demonstrate concern for the victims without looking like they were seeking political gain.
Obama told an audience in Virginia he had spoken on the phone with governors and mayors of the affected states and cities while aboard Air Force One earlier in the day. Romney's aides let it be known he might visit the region once the storm had passed.
Romney's reference to $1 trillion in defense cuts was a 10-year figure that combined reductions already enacted by Congress and reductions scheduled to begin next January as a result of Congress' failure to reach agreement on a broad plan to cut deficits.
He did not say so in his speech, but most Republicans, including Ryan, voted for the first installment as well as the second.
The reference to 9/11 was glancing in a speech that accused Obama of unwise defense cuts. Romney noted the economy is the top issue in the race, but he said, "Our debates can change suddenly, with a ringing phone in the dead of night ... or a plume of smoke on a clear blue morning.
"The first job of government is to keep the American people safe," he said, pledging to do so.
In an appearance before University of Virginia students, Obama said he understood Republicans didn't have much nice to say about his tenure in office. He told his listeners the GOP hoped to disparage him so much that they would either vote for Romney or sit out the election.
Romney had already returned to Florida aboard his chartered jet when Senate Republican Mitch McConnell of Kentucky began the convention's daily battering of Obama.
"America is suffering through an economic calamity of truly historic dimensions," he said in excerpts released in advance of his convention appearance.
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