(Corrects to Governor McDonnell in paragraph 5 from RNC Chairman Priebus)
* Storm Isaac bearing down on Florida’s Gulf Coast to New Orleans
* GOP’s celebration may be upstaged by winds, rain
* Romney needs a big moment for bounce in polls
By Steve Holland
TAMPA, Aug 26 (Reuters) - Tropical Storm Isaac menaced the U.S. presidential election campaign on Sunday, forcing Republicans to make changes to their national convention in Tampa, Florida, where party officials scrambled to make sure candidate Mitt Romney’s message to voters does not get blown off course.
The storm was now forecast to hit land midweek, possibly even blasting into New Orleans at hurricane strength on the seventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina - which might hurt the party’s effort to get out its message more than if it had hit Tampa Bay directly as originally predicted.
Expecting earlier that Tampa would be in Issac’s sights, convention organizers had canceled Monday’s opening events and tried to squeeze as many speakers and activities into three days as had been planned for four.
Republicans this week are to formally nominate Romney and vice presidential running mate Paul Ryan as their candidates to face President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden in the Nov. 6 election.
“It’s a concern ... competing with a major weather event,” Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell said on ABC’s “This Week.” Still he said he expected independent voters particularly will tune in to hear Romney and Ryan speak. “I think we’ll still get a fair amount of attention, and the message will be good.”
“We’re going to tell the Mitt Romney story, 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 said on CNN.
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.
But the Republicans, now faced with a potential natural disaster along the same Gulf Coast that saw 1,800 people killed and billions of dollars in damage from Hurricane Katrina on Aug. 29, 2005, will have to temper any celebrations with concern for those affected by Isaac.
The importance of the convention for Romney cannot be overstated. Running either even with Obama or slightly behind him, Romney needs a bounce in the polls from the convention.
His challenge is to convince Americans that he is a viable alternative to the incumbent Democrat, and his big week, culminating with a speech on Thursday, needs as few distractions as possible. Media focused on howling winds and storm surges in another part of the country will make his task more difficult.
He enters convention week having made a self-inflicted error by telling a crowd in Michigan “no one’s ever asked to see my birth certificate,” a joke that rekindled a storyline from 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.
Fueled by warm Gulf waters, Isaac is expected to strengthen into a Category 2 hurricane with 105 mph (169 kph) winds and landfall was likely to come midweek somewhere between Florida and Louisiana, the Miami-based National Hurricane Center said.
The storm expected to be at or near hurricane force when it swept across the Florida Keys by Sunday evening, the NHC said. A storm becomes a hurricane when sustained winds reach a minimum of 74 miles per hour (119 kph). At least six people were killed when it moved across Haiti.
Party officials were working with Florida state officials and emergency management to ensure the safety of everyone attending the convention. Although it may move ashore to the west, heavy winds and rain can stretch hundreds of miles out from the storm’s center.
A Lynyrd Skynyrd concert planned for Sunday night was canceled due to the likely severe weather, although performances by Trace Adkins, Kid Rock and Journey were moving ahead as scheduled.
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.
The last Republican convention, in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 2008 was also delayed a day due to a storm. That year, Hurricane Gustav hit the Louisiana coast as the convention was set to nominate Senator John McCain as the Republican nominee.
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.
Convention president Bill Harris said the party was ready operationally for events in Tampa to begin but they were acting out of an “abundance of caution” because of the uncertainty of the weather.
“I want to make sure everyone who attends the convention is safe and everyone who lives in Florida is not unnecessarily injured by any activities taking place when a storm threatens,” Harris said.
Biden, who had planned to visit Florida during the convention but who had already canceled his Tampa event because of the storm has decided to also cancel his other events in Orlando and St. Augustine. (Additional reporting by Deborah Charles; Editing by Jackie Frank)