WASHINGTON (Reuters) - This week was a tempestuous one for the Republican Party but things could get even stormier if a hurricane bears down on the national convention in Tampa.
With Tropical Storm Isaac on a path that could bring it to the city at hurricane strength just as the four-day event begins on Monday, Republican officials were setting up tents, stockpiling umbrellas and nervously eyeing possible changes to the schedule of speakers.
Forecasters said on Friday that Isaac could bring torrential rains, high winds and tornadoes to Tampa even if it remains a tropical storm and stays out in the Gulf of Mexico, far from shore.
The party insists the meeting will go ahead, even if it has to alter the schedule.
“We’re going to have a convention,” said Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee. The highlight of the event — Mitt Romney’s speech accepting the nomination for president — is still set for Thursday.
The schedule was unchanged by Friday afternoon, but convention officials said they would make changes if necessary. Speakers could be moved to different days or dropped altogether if the weather makes traveling dangerous or difficult.
“We have contingency plans in place to ensure the health and safety of convention delegates, guests and visitors, and the Tampa Bay community,” spokesman James Davis said.
The RNC will have ponchos and raincoats for delegates, and organizers said they had a big supply of umbrellas in — of course — Republican red.
Workers have erected canvas covers over walkways and set up tents to shield delegates from rain or hot sun, but they might be a problem in wind. At least one tent collapsed and was mangled in a thunderstorm this week.
The convention will bring 50,000 visitors to the Tampa-St. Petersburg area, home to well over 4 million people. But local authorities say they can handle the crowds and a 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.
A major concern would be flooding from rain or a storm surge — a wall of water driven inland by a hurricane. The ground in the Tampa area is already soaked and rivers and lakes are swollen from recent heavy rainstorms.
High winds could also close some of Tampa’s many bridges.
Tropical Storm Debby lingered off the Florida coast in June, dousing the area and spinning off a tornado that tore the roof off of a restaurant. The area is still recovering.
Fears about the convention ended a rough week for the Republicans, whose hopes of positive headlines before the gathering were ruined by an uproar over comments on “legitimate rape” by Republican Representative Todd Akin.
The conservative lawmaker defied calls from Romney and many senior party figures to quit the race for a U.S. Senate seat in Missouri.
The convention could still dodge the bullet.
Rick Danielson, a meteorologist at the National Hurricane Center, said Isaac’s threat to Tampa was still difficult to gauge on Friday, when the storm was in the Caribbean heading for Haiti. He said the convention city could be hit by coastal flooding and driving winds or rain.
“There is still a full range of possible impacts on Tampa at this point,” he said.
Some Democrats mocked the rival party for scheduling their convention in Florida during the height of the annual hurricane season. But the last Republican convention, in 2008, was affected by a storm even though it was in St. Paul, Minnesota, a city thousands of miles from the hurricane zone.
That year, Hurricane Gustav hit the Louisiana coast as the convention was set to get under way. The party, still reeling from criticism of Republican President George W. Bush’s handling of devastating Hurricane Katrina in 2005, rushed to delay the meeting out of respect for Gustav’s victims.
The storm could eliminate one Republican headache. Bad weather might cancel Democratic Vice President Joe Biden’s plans for a Florida campaign trip on Monday and Tuesday to counter the Republican convention.
And local officials pointed to one bright side of dealing with Isaac. The storm will most likely come and go on Monday, with clear skies and bright sunshine forecast for the next three convention days.
“Once these systems come through, they should be leaving great weather,” Hillsborough County Emergency Management spokeswoman Holly Wade said.
Additional reporting by Tom Brown in Miami and Saundra Amrhein in Tampa; Editing by Alistair Bell and Xavier Briand