August 27, 2012 10:58:31 AM
TAMPA -- Mitt Romney's Republican National Convention sputters to life with the lonely banging of a gavel in a mostly empty hall, hardly the opening splash intended for the nation. With a sprawling and strengthening storm bearing down on the region, the party hastily rewrote the convention script to present the extravaganza's prime rituals and headline speakers later in the week -- Tropical Storm Isaac willing.
Nothing was certain Monday as the storm carved an unpredictable path toward the Gulf of Mexico, forcing planners to compress four days of events into three and otherwise improvise.
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.
"It is what it is," said Reince Priebus, the Republican National Committee chairman, up early to tell the Monday morning talk shows that despite the storm and the compressed schedule, the GOP still can present a compelling argument for Mitt Romney.
"Obviously we want to pray for anyone that's in the pathway of this storm," Priebus said 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."
From New Hampshire, where he and his wife, Ann, rehearsed their convention speeches in a high school auditorium, Romney expressed worry about the people in Isaac's way while predicting a "great convention" nonetheless.
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."
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.