TAMPA—Pushed back a day by stormy weather, a downsized Republican National Convention now is bracing for something potentially worse — that Mitt Romney’s political thunder may be stolen altogether by a hurricane wreaking havoc on the Gulf Coast just as the party resumes.
Though Tropical Storm Isaac is now expected to largely spare Tampa as it swirls by Monday, senior Republican officials here are reluctantly coming to grips with how their show might go on should Isaac rev up to hurricane force and deliver Category 2 devastation across any of four southern states in peril when it makes landfall Tuesday.
It has already killed eight in Haiti and left three missing in the Dominican Republic. (Cuba was spared any fatalities.)
On Sunday, Alabama declared a state of emergency, joining Mississippi, Louisiana and the Florida panhandle in a scramble against torrential rain and possible 160-km/h winds.
With New Orleans itself at risk as it approaches the seventh anniversary of the deluge that was Hurricane Katrina, a worst-case scenario is not something senior Romney campaign strategist Russ Schreifer was ready to address publicly.
“Look, there’s a weather event … we are monitoring,” Schreifer told reporters, declining to address whether a series of nights carefully scripted to rouse American enthusiasm for Romney will be rewritten for real-time disaster.
“Our concern has to be with the people in the path of the storm. All this is being taken into consideration,” he said.
Schreifer also left open the possibility of extending the convention to Friday.
The script has already been rewritten once but the condensed Republican message remains the same: three days instead of four, each designed to rivet American voters with prime-time speeches extolling the virtues of Romney as a positive alternative to President Barack Obama.
Keynote speakers include Ann Romney, the candidate’s wife, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (Tuesday) and Romney’s running mate Paul Ryan (Wednesday), all building to Romney’s moment on Thursday night as he accepts the mantle of Republican presidential nominee.
Real estate mogul Donald Trump was the only high-profile casualty of Monday’s cancellation. But on Sunday Trump still sparked attention from the sidelines, telling reporters in nearby Sarasota that he may continue to harangue Obama over the issue of the president’s birth certificate during the remainder of the campaign.
“Let’s just say this: there’s a huge group of people that are not believers in what (Obama) did, what he said and where he came from,” said Trump, who was in Florida to receive a Statesman of the Year award from a local Republican association. “We’ll see what happens over the coming weeks and months.”
Though GOP delegates won’t gather until 2 p.m. Tuesday at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, the vast majority of the estimated 50,000 visitors to Tampa were already in town, with most previously planned ancillary events, parties and receptions proceeding apace.
Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, a Tea Party favourite, used an appearance at a Sunday prayer service to conflate religion, politics and weather into a single message, calling the moment “a spiritual hurricane in our land.”
There were also protests across downtown Tampa, though the turnout was in the hundreds, not thousands. The scenes included a convoy of cars with stuffed toy dogs tied conspicuously on top, a gesture by the group Dogs Against Romney. One smiling driver rolled down his window, held out his hand in a peace sign and barked “woof” as he motored by.
Another activist group, Morning In America, ice-sculpted the words “Middle Class” in large frozen blocks. It had melted by day’s end, as was the intended metaphor.
A massive security presence has taken hold in the city, with an estimated 5,000 police spread throughout Tampa on foot, bicycle, horseback and countless cruisers, marked and unmarked.
But the mood was anything but tense. The Toronto Star witnessed several protesters happily handing over their cameras to police and asking that souvenir pictures be taken. Several smiling officers obliged, handing back the cameras after snapping the shots.