TAMPA, Fla.: Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan took his party’s national convention spotlight Wednesday night as Republicans sought to turn the White House campaign back to the sluggish economy. He was accepting the vice presidential nomination at a gathering struggling for attention as Tropical Storm Isaac cast a pall from the nearby northern Gulf Coast.
In a secondary role if only for a moment, presidential candidate Mitt Romney accused Democratic President Barack Obama of backing “reckless defense cuts” amounting to $1 trillion. “There are plenty of places to cut in a federal budget that now totals over $3 trillion. But defense is not one of them,” Romney said in remarks that referred elliptically to the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Romney spoke to the American Legion in Indianapolis as his aides in Florida scripted an economy-and-veterans-themed program in their own convention hall and kept a wary eye on Isaac. The storm, downgraded from a hurricane to a tropical storm, was threatening levees in the New Orleans area almost exactly seven years after the calamitous Hurricane Katrina.
Romney delivers his own nationally televised acceptance speech Thursday night in the final act of his own convention. The political attention then shifts to the Democrats, who open their own convention on Tuesday to nominate Obama and Vice President Joseph Biden for a second term.
Deep into a two-week stretch of national gatherings, the race for the White House is in a sort of political black hole where the day-to-day polls matter little if at all as voters sort through their impressions.
Despite the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on television commercials by the candidates, their parties and supporting groups, the race has appeared unusually close since Romney clinched his nomination last spring.
Only eight or so battleground states appear to be competitive, although Republicans say they hope to expand the campaign after Labor Day, particularly in industrial states struggling to recover from the worst economic recession since the Great Depression.
Yet for all of the attack ads and inflammatory rhetoric, the two campaigns tiptoed carefully around the storm ravaging the Gulf Coast, vying to demonstrate concern for the victims without looking like they were seeking political gain.
Obama told an audience in Virginia he had spoken on the phone with governors and mayors of the affected states and cities while aboard Air Force One earlier in the day. Romney’s aides let it be known he might visit the region once the storm had passed.
Romney’s reference to $1 trillion in defense cuts was a 10-year figure that combined reductions already enacted by Congress and reductions scheduled to begin next January as a result of Congress’ failure to reach agreement on a broad plan to cut deficits.
He did not say so in his speech, but most Republicans, including Ryan, voted for the first installment as well as the second.
The reference to 9/11 was glancing in a speech that accused Obama of unwise defense cuts. Romney noted the economy is the top issue in the race, but he said, “Our debates can change suddenly, with a ringing phone in the dead of night ... or a plume of smoke on a clear blue morning.
“The first job of government is to keep the American people safe,” he said, pledging to do so.
In an appearance before University of Virginia students, Obama said he understood Republicans didn’t have much nice to say about his tenure in office. He told his listeners the GOP hoped to disparage him so much that they would either vote for Romney or sit out the election.
Romney had already returned to Florida aboard his chartered jet when Senate Republican Mitch McConnell of Kentucky began the convention’s daily battering of Obama.
“America is suffering through an economic calamity of truly historic dimensions,” he said in excerpts released in advance of his convention appearance.
“Some are calling it the slowest recovery in our nation’s entire 236-year history. To call this a recovery is an insult to recoveries.” He spoke a few hours after the government reported economic growth for the second quarter was 1.7 percent, sluggish but marginally better than earlier estimated.
As for his own party’s nominee, McConnell said, “When Mitt Romney looks down the road, he sees a country that’s ready for a comeback. I firmly believe he’s the man to lead it.”
McConnell had his eye on more than the presidential race. A gain of four seats in November would assure Republicans of control of the Senate and elevate him to the position of majority leader.
Ryan visited the convention hall with his family during the day to get the feel of the made-for-television stage and lectern.
Romney tapped Ryan earlier this month as his running mate, a selection that cheered conservatives who have doubted the presidential candidate’s own commitment to their cause.
“We’re going to give the country a very clear choice that they deserve,” the Wisconsin congressman told members of his home-state delegation a few hours before the speech.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, interviewed on “CBS This Morning,” hailed Ryan as a serious policy thinker who’s “going to have a bunch of new fans across this country” after the speech.
Ryan’s calling card in Congress is his detailed understanding of the federal budget, and his willingness to advance controversial measures to rein in the cost of Medicare and other government benefit programs to curb federal deficits.
If Ryan’s selection was designed in part to appeal to conservatives, the convention was designed to strengthen the ticket’s appeals among women, Hispanics and others who prefer Obama over the Republicans, as well as veterans who supported John McCain in 2008.
Romney’s wife Ann, the star of the Tuesday convention program, attended a fundraiser and then a Latino Coalition Lunch. Hispanics are “are mistaken if they think they are going to be better off” if Obama wins a new term, she said.
“That’s not true. We very much care about this community.”
Associated Press writers Steve Peoples in Indianapolis, Julie Pace in Charlottesville, Va., Jim Kuhnhenn in Washington and Philip Elliott, Beth Fouhy and Tamara Lush in Tampa contributed to this story.