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Monday, August 27, 2012 - Page updated at 09:30 p.m.
Storm creates risks for Republicans at convention
By MICHAEL D. SHEAR
The New York Times
TAMPA, Fla. — It looks to be one of the worst nightmares for planners of Mitt Romney's coronation.
At the height of the Republican National Convention this week, a potential Category 2 hurricane bearing winds greater than 100 mph appears likely to slam into the Gulf Coast, perhaps close to the already battered city of New Orleans.
Images of wind-damaged homes, flooding and mass evacuations — all fraught with the memory of Hurricane Katrina — may well compete on television with Romney's bid to seize the initiative in his battle with President Obama for the White House.
"Images of revelry by Republicans at a time of suffering by other Americans — no party wants those optics," said Steve Schmidt, who helped lead Sen. John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign. "You have terrible awareness of all that stuff."
Four years ago, Schmidt and other Republicans postponed the first day of the GOP convention in Minneapolis as an even larger hurricane headed through the gulf toward New Orleans. Schmidt said the fact the opening day would have fallen on the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which made landfall on Aug. 29, 2005, was foremost in their minds.
"The optics of that were not good," Schmidt recalled.
Four years later — on virtually the same anniversary — Isaac, still a tropical storm, seems likely to miss Tampa, where as many as 50,000 delegates and journalists are gathered. After canceling Monday's activities, organizers said they were optimistic the storm would not prevent the convention from proceeding Tuesday.
On a conference call Sunday evening, organizers said they planned to stick with a three-day convention beginning Tuesday and had managed to reschedule all of the major speakers from Monday for the other days.
Russ Schriefer, a top adviser to Romney who is helping produce the convention, said organizers were keeping a close eye on the storm and may yet adjust the schedule if necessary.
"We are obviously monitoring what is going on with the weather," Schriefer said. "Our concern has to be with the people who are in the path of the storm."
But Schriefer declined to comment on the difficult imagery of conducting the convention at the same time a storm hits the Gulf Coast.
"Until we know that and we can predict the weather, we are going to continue with our Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday schedule," Schriefer said.
But even if the logistics in Tampa are doable, the Republican party's organizers and Romney's strategists must confront the political baggage that could come with pushing ahead with the minutely-produced celebration.
They could continue with the convention Tuesday, essentially challenging the news networks to stay with them despite the storm.
If the storm peters out, or wreaks less damage than expected, that decision could end up being a good one, providing Romney with just the kind of attention in front of millions of viewers that his campaign has planned for.
The danger is the storm might intensify and cause a major humanitarian disaster — and news story — even as Rep. Paul Ryan, the vice-presidential nominee, gives his speech and then Romney formally accepts his nomination.
Planners could decide to truncate the convention even more, canceling Tuesday's activities or scaling back the festivities and speeches on some of the other days, out of deference to disaster in the Gulf.
But that carries risks, too. Romney is in what appears to be a close race against Obama, and his campaign has been counting on the impact of the convention to present his argument for change to the largest audience Romney likely will have before the November election.
Cutting back the convention even further would rob the campaign of a chance to make that case in the way it had been planning. It probably would mean that some high-profile speakers, such as Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, or Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, might lose their opportunity to address the convention.
That, in turn, would make it harder for Romney to present the kind of message he wants ahead of the final nine weeks of the campaign after the party conventions.
"You want Chris Christie up there. You want to see Marco Rubio. You want Paul Ryan not to be crowded with a lot of other personalities," Schmidt said. "There's no other moment like this in the campaign, where the party has the ability to communicate to an audience of tens of millions of people who pay attention."
One event that went off as planned was Sunday night's kickoff party at Tropicana Field, home of the Tampa Bay Rays. The baseball field was transformed into a party zone featuring three separate stages that showcased acts such as country music star Rodney Atkins, belly dancers and cheerleaders. Delegates got to drink and eat Cuban food and local seafood.
Organizers said that roughly 20,000 people had been invited, but they were not certain how much the potential threat of tropical storm Isaac would discourage people from attending. Ken Jones, president and CEO of the 2012 Republican National Committee host convention, defended going ahead with the event despite the storm.
A Monday breakfast with speakers such as Christie and Hewlett-Packard CEO Meg Whitman was moved to a new room inside the TradeWinds hotel on the water near Tampa. And Tuesday's brunch with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, House Speaker John Boehner and California Rep. Darrell Issa was planned for an outside venue, but it now will be held within the hotel.
A few hundred protesters gathered under wet skies in a park about a half-mile from the GOP convention on Sunday, saying the weather won't stop them from getting out their message that America's middle class is in trouble and needs to be restored.
People from Occupy Wall Street and Code Pink groups marched from the park about two blocks to the Tampa theater where the Faith and Freedom Coalition was holding an event. At least one arrest was made during protests. Officers spotted a man they said had a machete strapped to his leg.
About 30 people, many with dogs, held a rally against Romney, who infamously strapped his dog in a crate to the top of his car on a family vacation years ago.
Includes information from The Associated Press.
Copyright © The Seattle Times Company
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