TAMPA (Reuters) - Tropical Storm Isaac forced Republicans on Sunday to rewrite the script for their national convention in Tampa as party officials scrambled to make sure candidate Mitt Romney’s message to voters would not be blown off course.
Isaac was expected to spare Tampa a direct hit and strike, with hurricane strength, farther north along the Gulf Coast this week.
But it has left Republicans - who canceled events on Monday in anticipation of the storm - with a new challenge to salvage the convention’s remaining three days: Help Romney make an aggressive, memorable argument to be president, while being careful to show sensitivity to those at risk from the storm.
It is a quandary Republicans also faced in 2008, when they chose to delay their convention in St. Paul, Minnesota. That year, Hurricane Gustav hit the Louisiana coast as the convention was set to nominate Arizona Senator John McCain as the Republican presidential nominee.
At the time, the party was still reeling from criticism of Republican President George W. Bush’s handling of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005. New Orleans is now threatened by Isaac’s projected path.
Romney, who will face Democratic President Barack Obama in the November 6 election, is eager to use the nationally televised political extravaganza in Tampa to define himself to American voters after a series of campaign setbacks.
But Romney could be robbed of some media attention - or worse, have images of convention festivities juxtaposed with searing split-screen television images of the storm’s onslaught if Isaac dominates the news this week.
Seeking to regain the initiative, convention organizers juggled the speaking schedule as Republican delegates converged on Tampa, where the party will formally nominate Romney and his vice presidential running mate, Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan.
The main speakers whose Monday appearances had to be scrapped were given slots on other nights, including House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and Senator Rand Paul, son of Romney’s former presidential rival Ron Paul.
Mindful of the potential for bad “optics” if Isaac hits the Gulf Coast at the height of the convention, Russ Schriefer, the Romney campaign’s top convention planner, left open the possibility of more scheduling changes or even extending the gathering into Friday.
TELLING ROMNEY‘S STORY
“We all know that a weather event is there,” he told reporters on a conference call Sunday afternoon. “We’re obviously monitoring what is going on. ... Concern has to be with the people who are in the path of the storm.”
Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week” that despite competition from the storm coverage, he expected independent voters in particular to tune in to hear Romney’s speech Thursday night and Ryan’s the previous night.
“I think we’ll still get a fair amount of attention,” McDonnell said, “and the message will be good.”
Part of Republican officials’ aim is to present Romney’s biography - his years as a private equity executive, Massachusetts governor and leader of the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics - in a flattering way that contrasts with the waves of attacks on Romney by the president and his allies.
“We’re going to tell the Mitt Romney story. (And) we’re still going to prosecute the president on what he promised, what he delivered, and why we think we need to save this country and put Mitt Romney in the White House,” Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus told CNN on Sunday.
The Republican convention, just like the Democrats’ similar gathering in Charlotte, North Carolina, early next month, is typically a celebratory event bringing together thousands of party activists from across the United States for a week of speeches, partying and strategizing.
For Romney, the importance of the convention cannot be overstated. Running even with Obama or slightly behind him in most opinion polls, Romney needs a bounce in the polls from the convention, particularly in the 10 or so politically divided “swing states,” like Florida, likely to decide the election.
Romney enters convention week having made a self-inflicted error by telling a crowd in Michigan that “no one’s ever asked to see my birth certificate,” a joke that rekindled a storyline pushed by far-right conservatives over whether Obama was actually born in the United States.
Romney tried to get the focus on what he considers the paramount issue in the campaign, the weak U.S. economy, telling Fox News he and Ryan would offer “big and bold answers.”
“America needs that kind of help at a time when so many people are out of work or underemployed or having a hard time making ends meet,” he said in remarks broadcast on Sunday.
Convention organizers were working intensely to ensure that Isaac doesn’t distract from Romney’s mission. The storm lashed south Florida with winds and heavy rain on Sunday after battering the Caribbean.
Fueled by warm Gulf waters, Isaac was expected to strengthen to a Category 2 hurricane and hit the Gulf Coast somewhere between Florida and Louisiana at midweek, on or near the seventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the U.S. National Hurricane Center (NHC) said in an advisory.
A hurricane watch was extended westward to include New Orleans. A storm becomes a hurricane when sustained winds reach at least 74 miles per hour. At least seven people were killed when Isaac moved across Haiti.
The Republican convention will bring 50,000 visitors to the Tampa-St. Petersburg area, home to well over 4 million people. Over the last few days, local authorities have said they could handle the crowds and the approaching storm.
Many attendees booked earlier flights to be in place before any bad weather. Hotels said they were ready to shift party schedules or move outdoor events indoors.
Party officials were working with Florida state officials and emergency management to ensure the safety of those attending the convention. Heavy winds and rain can stretch for hundreds of miles out from the center of a major storm.
A Lynyrd Skynyrd concert planned for Sunday night was canceled because of the likely severe weather. But several other pre-convention events were going ahead as planned, including a giant welcoming party at the Tropicana Field.
Democratic Vice President Joe Biden, who had planned to visit Florida during the convention but canceled his Tampa event because of the storm, has decided to also cancel his other planned events in Orlando and St. Augustine, Florida.
Writing by Steve Holland and Matt Spetalnick; Additional reporting by Deborah Charles; Editing by David Lindsey and Todd Eastham