Mark Z. Barabak and Michael A. Memoli
TAMPA, Fla. —
Greeted by rain and howling wind, Republicans gathered Sunday for a convention partly waylaid by Tropical Storm Isaac, which threatened to swamp this low-lying city and hijack precious days of attention from presidential hopeful Mitt Romney.
Having already canceled Monday’s opening schedule, strategists for the unofficial GOP nominee said they managed to squeeze most speakers into three remaining days and would not alter the convention program as a result of the unfolding natural disaster — though that could change.
“There’s a weather event. We all know that the weather event is there,” Russ Schriefer, a top Romney strategist, told reporters Sunday night. He said the campaign would closely watch developments but, for now, “We’re going to continue with our Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday schedule.”
Campaign strategists have long viewed the convention as a key moment in the tight presidential race. With repeated polls suggesting a likability problem for Romney, a mix of testimonials and attacks on President Barack Obama have been crafted to both humanize the former Massachusetts governor and convince voters he can better relate to their economic struggles.
But if Sunday’s split-screen TV coverage was any evidence, Romney may have to compete for at least the next day or two with weather maps, storm trackers and reports of evacuees and relief efforts along Isaac’s projected path.
The more practical concern here in Florida was the safety of residents and the 50,000 or so delegates, reporters and other political travelers gathered for four days of pomp and partying in this bay-front city.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott urged delegates and others attending the convention to avoid unnecessary travel in the flood-prone region on Monday. Scott, a Republican, earlier said he would skip the convention altogether to devote his full energy to the storm.
“Don’t start venturing into the Tampa site, because you don’t know what’s going to happen as far as your ability to get home,” Scott said after a morning briefing with local, state and federal officials.
Weather forecasters said that Isaac, which killed nine people in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, may strengthen into a hurricane and make landfall late Tuesday or early Wednesday on the Gulf Coast of Alabama or Louisiana. Although Tampa is hundreds of miles away and would not take a direct hit, Scott said the concern was flooding from storm surges in the region, which is still saturated from Tropical Storm Debbie earlier this summer.
Despite the disruption, many delegates reacted with a cheerful stoicism.
At the beachfront Tradewinds resort in St. Pete Beach, where the California delegation was housed, some prepared by stocking up on water, snacks and batteries for flashlights. “I can’t think of a better group to be around,” said Becky Kolberg, 64, of San Ramon, Calif. “Self-reliance is our byword.”
Obama spoke Sunday with Scott to “make clear that the administration, through (the Federal Emergency Management Agency), would continue to make resources available as necessary to support the state,” according to a statement from the White House.
As Florida and other gulf states hunkered down, Romney campaigned via the TV talk-show circuit, offering a rare boast about the health care plan he pushed through as Massachusetts governor.
Romney cited the program in an interview on Fox News Sunday when asked about the party’s firm anti-abortion stance and Democratic assertions the GOP is waging a “war on women.”
“Look, I’m the guy who was able to get health care for all the women and men in my state,” Romney said. “We actually did something and we did it without cutting Medicare and without raising taxes. I’m very proud of what we did and the fact that we helped women, and men and children in our state.”
Romney rarely discusses his state’s health care plan, which served as a model for Obama’s national overhaul, because the expansive program is anathema to many conservatives.
Asked about U.S. Rep. Todd Akin of Missouri and his misguided musings on “legitimate rape” and pregnancy, Romney again condemned the Senate candidate’s remarks as “outrageous and offensive.” Akin has ignored Romney and other party leaders who urged him to step aside rather than risk losing a competitive U.S. Senate race.
“I’ve distanced myself from the thing he said as far as I possibly can,” Romney said, suggesting that Democrats were using Akin’s statement to cast a shadow on his entire party.
Brushing aside another Democratic criticism, Romney added he and other Republicans “of course ... recognize that people should have a right to use contraceptives. There’s absolutely no validity whatsoever to the Obama effort to try and bring that up.”
Romney has, however, vowed to end federal funding of Planned Parenthood, which, along with other services, provides contraceptives to those who cannot afford them.
Aside from the threat posed by Isaac, parts of Tampa were quite possibly the safest place in the world. Like rings around a bull’s eye, concentric circles of security surrounded the Tampa Bay Times Forum, where the convention was to gavel open for a brief, perfunctory session Monday.
Nearly 4,000 armed police officers and uniformed members of the National Guard, part of a force involving more than 60 different law enforcement agencies, swarmed the streets and peered down from the top of parking garages, effectively turning a large chunk of downtown into an armed camp.
Of course, the one thing no could control was the weather.
Despite some quiet grumbling from delegates and others disappointed by the truncated schedule, Scott insisted it was not a mistake for the GOP to schedule its big bash in Florida, which has a history of natural disasters, smack in the midst of hurricane season.
“The convention was a big opportunity for our state to show what a great place it is to live, work and play. Now what they’re going to find out this week is we know how to deal with hurricanes,” he said. “We’re prepared.”