TAMPA, Fla.: Republicans staged a remarkably subdued opening to Mitt Romney’s national convention Monday in the midst of a turbulent election year, wary of uncorking a glittery political celebration as Tropical Storm Isaac surged menacingly toward New Orleans and the northern Gulf Coast.
There was speculation that the Republican man of the hour would make an unannounced visit to the convention hall tonight when his wife, Ann, is on the speaking program. The campaign would confirm only that he was flying to town in time to do so.
Virtually every party leader spoke somberly of the storm’s potential damage during the day, including the candidate. “Our thoughts are with the people that are in the storm’s path and hope that they’re spared any major destruction,” said Romney, who is seeking to defeat Democratic President Barack Obama.
Though Republicans are intent on turning the campaign’s focus back to the nation’s sluggish economic growth and high unemployment, a comment Romney made on abortion reintroduced a topic that had taken over campaign discussion last week. In a CBS interview, he said he opposes abortions except “in the case of rape and incest, and the health and life of the mother.”
That underscored his difference of opinion on the subject with his running mate, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, as well as with his own convention platform, which opposes all abortions.
Any exceptions made solely on the basis of a woman’s health have drawn particularly fierce criticism from abortion foes for years, and Romney’s aides said he wasn’t advocating an exemption on that basis alone.
“Governor Romney’s position is clear: He opposes abortion except for cases of rape, incest and where the life of the mother is threatened,” said Andrea Saul, a spokeswoman.
The convention’s first session lasted scarcely a minute, just long enough for the party’s chairman, Reince Priebus, to rap a gavel and declare the gathering open for business. As he did, high above the floor, numbers began flashing across an electronic tally board labeled “Debt from Convention Start,” meant to show the government steadily borrowing under Obama’s leadership throughout the convention.
The week is turning out to be about both meteorology and politics. Romney’s top aides and convention planners are juggling their desire for a robust rouse-the-Republicans convention with concern about appearing uncaring as New Orleans faces a threat from Isaac precisely seven years after the city was devastated by Hurricane Katrina.
Opinion polls made the presidential race nearly even as Republicans launched their convention, although it appeared Obama had a slim advantage in battleground states where the election is most likely to be decided.
It was anything but certain what the impact would be on the campaign of back-to-back convention weeks, first Romney’s and then the president’s in Charlotte, N.C.
Economy is No. 1 issue
The economy is the No. 1 issue by far in the polls, and Romney’s surrogates sought to make sure the campaign stays focused on it.
A blunt view came from Gary Hawkins, a delegate from Brandon, Miss. “We have to nominate a candidate for president. Our mission is to save America from becoming a socialistic state,” he said.
In the convention hall, Priebus looked out at thousands of empty seats and a smattering of delegates in his brief turn on stage. Officials decided earlier in the week to scrap nearly all of the opening day’s program when it appeared that Isaac might make a direct hit on the convention city.
That put Romney’s formal nomination off by a day until tonight. Weather permitting, he delivers his acceptance speech on Thursday night, then embarks on a fall campaign that he hopes will propel him to the White House.
“This week is about convincing the 10 percent of undecided voters that Romney has always been called to come out and fix broken organizations,” said Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., who was interviewed on the convention floor.
“We’ve got to make the case that he is uniquely qualified in this hour,” Wicker said, adding that the “country is in bankruptcy.”
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, carried a similar message to his state’s delegates at a morning meeting.
“It’s time to stop blaming others and take responsibility,” he said in reference to the president. “There are families all over Ohio that are suffering as a result. He hasn’t measured up to his own standards.’’
What passed for vocal dissent within the party came from supporters of Rep. Ron Paul, a Texas Republican who ran for the nomination but failed to win a primary or caucus.
Delegates loyal to him threatened a floor fight later in the week over party rules. And they staged a brief but noisy demonstration at the rear of the convention hall after Priebus completed his brief turn at the podium, holding up placards bearing their man’s name.
They stood in front of a permanent sign that said, “We Can Do Better,” appropriating Romney’s pledge to fix the economy to express a preference for their man.