The Republican National Convention to nominate Mitt Romney as the party's challenger to President Barack Obama was gaveled into session for just a few minutes Monday in a largely empty hall, a symbolic opening as delegates waited out a dangerous hurricane-season storm.
Republicans effectively cancelled the first day of an event aimed at repairing party unity after a bruising primary season and recharging the campaign before the Nov. 6 election. Polls show Obama holding a small lead in a race dominated by concerns about the still-struggling economy.
Romney's campaign looks forward to introducing their candidate to national television viewers with high-profile speeches from him, running mate Paul Ryan and party leaders in an attempt to show Romney as both a determined leader and a family figure. They hope to counter Democrats' attempts to brand him as a ruthless titan of the business world.
But the convention's script was being hurriedly reshaped Monday as Tropical Storm Isaac threatened to come ashore as a hurricane along the U.S.¬Gulf Coast perhaps not far from New Orleans, almost seven years to the day after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city, killed 1,800 and led to criticism of Republican President George W. Bush's response.
Romney suggested there were no thoughts of canceling the convention and said he hopes those in the storm's path are "spared any major destruction."
The roll call of state delegations affirming Romney as the party's nominee now is to unfold Tuesday, an evening capped by speeches from wife Ann Romney and Republican governors. Ryan gets the prime-time spotlight Wednesday, and Romney closes out the spectacle Thursday night, his springboard into the final leg of the contest.
But the storm risked the juxtaposition of Republicans partying as a potential hurricane churned toward the gulf shore.
"Obviously we want to pray for anyone that's in the pathway of this storm," Party Chairman Reince Priebus said Monday 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."
It was clear that memories of Hurricane Katrina, and the failure of a Republican administration to respond effectively to its devastation in 2005, were hanging over the convention. Republicans have been so sensitive to the political risks from natural disasters that they delayed the start of their national convention by a day in 2008, when Hurricane Gustav bore down on the Gulf, far from their meeting in Minnesota.
Tampa, the site of this year's convention, early on had been seen as possibly being in the storm's direct path, but Isaac has taken a more western course.
The storm was a complication, at best, for a party determined to cast the close election as a referendum on Obama's economic stewardship and Romney as the best hope for jobs and prosperity.
In Washington, aides said Obama was being updated at the White House on the storm. He was still planning a two-day campaign trip to Iowa, Colorado and Virginia, beginning Tuesday morning.
The tight election is coming down to several battleground states whose residents can't be counted on to reliably vote for one party or another: Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, New Hampshire, Ohio, Iowa, Colorado and Nevada. The U.S.¬ president is not chosen according to the nationwide popular vote but in state-by-state contests. Obama and Romney have been campaigning in those states over and over in recent weeks.
At the symbolic 10-minute opening session of the Republican gathering Monday, party officials launched a debt clock to show how much the government will borrow during the convention week alone. The party hammers Obama for running up government debt to record levels.
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