Republicans showcase Romney as storm clouds convention
TAMPA, Florida (Reuters) - Presidential candidate Mitt Romney flies to Tampa on Tuesday to join fellow Republicans seeking to put their shortened convention back on track and prevent his message from being drowned out by a tropical storm churning toward the Gulf Coast.
Getting down to the first full day of business after Tropical Storm Isaac upended the convention schedule, delegates will formally affirm Romney as the party's nominee in an evening capped by prime time speeches by Romney's wife, Ann, and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.
Romney, who had originally planned to arrive in Tampa on Thursday to accept his party's nomination, decided to fly in on Tuesday to be on hand for his wife's appearance on the podium, a campaign official said.
Republicans seeking to salvage the convention faced a stiff challenge: help Romney make an aggressive, memorable argument to replace Democratic President Barack Obama while being careful to show sensitivity to those at risk from the storm.
Delegates gathering for the typically festive and partisan event were also under pressure to avoid the appearance of unseemly celebration while the Gulf Coast was under threat. Isaac could hit Louisiana on the 7th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina's devastating onslaught on New Orleans.
Tampa was spared the brunt of Isaac's fury. But a destructive landfall between northern Florida and Louisiana in coming days - with the storm forecast to reach hurricane force - threatens to create an uncomfortable split-screen of television images.
The convention will culminate with Romney's nationally televised acceptance speech on Thursday, the biggest speaking engagement of his political life so far. He has spent the past few days rehearsing at his New Hampshire vacation home.
Running even with Obama or slightly behind him in most opinion polls, Romney needs a bounce in popularity from the gathering, particularly in the 10 or so politically divided "swing states," including Florida itself, likely to decide the election.
Senior Republicans will start setting the stage on Tuesday with a lineup of speakers expected to rip into Obama for his economic policies, widely seen as the president's most vulnerable point, and argue that the former private equity executive could do a better job.
"As far as getting our message out, I think we're going to be able to get it out very clearly that President Obama has failed," Romney convention organizer Russ Schriefer told reporters in a preview of Tuesday's proceedings.
Keeping the heat on Obama for his "you didn't build that" comment, convention planners have set the day's theme as "We Built It," in a bid to highlight what they see as the president's hostility toward small business.
Ann Romney's address to the convention represents a prime opportunity to humanize her husband, who is often seen as having trouble connecting with everyday Americans. Obama's campaign has sought to exploit this by emphasizing Romney's vast wealth.
In Tampa, part of Republican officials' aim is to present Romney's biography - his years as a private equity executive, Massachusetts governor and leader of the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics - in a flattering way that contrasts with the waves of attacks on Romney by the president and his allies.
Mrs. Romney, who suffers from multiple sclerosis and survived a bout with breast cancer, is perhaps Romney's most popular surrogate, able to talk about her husband and their five sons in deeply personal way.
CAN CHRISTIE MEET EXPECTATIONS?
Expectations are highest, however, for the keynote speech by the fiery Christie, which is likely to be heavy on red-meat rhetoric for conservatives.
Romney's campaign likes Christie's in-your-face style, which has made him a rising political star -- he was on Romney's vice presidential short list and is seen as a future presidential contender.
The man Romney did pick as his running mate, Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan, tops the bill on Wednesday.
Another speaker scheduled for Tuesday, Rick Santorum, is a different matter. The former Pennsylvania senator was the last obstacle standing in Romney's path to the nomination and had delivered attack after attack on Romney on the campaign trail.
He said he did not believe Romney could be elected president based on the healthcare plan Romney developed as governor of Massachusetts, and accused him of flip-flopping positions on key issues.
Some Romney advisers had disliked the idea of granting Santorum a speaking role, fearing he would go off script. In the end, the campaign agreed in the name of party unity to give Santorum a role.
Schriefer told reporters that he had seen both Santorum's and Christie's convention speeches - a sign that the Romney campaign had made certain Santorum, who is said to harbor presidential aspirations for 2016, did not wander off this week's pro-Romney agenda.
But uppermost in convention planners' minds was Isaac - and the question of whether it would rob some of Romney's media attention and obscure his central message.
The storm forced convention organizers to cancel the first day of activities on Monday and scramble to reschedule the rest of the event.
Isaac was expected to reach hurricane force by Tuesday and reach land by Tuesday night or early Wednesday - the seventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
The Republicans' convention was also disrupted in 2008 when they chose to delay its start in St. Paul, Minnesota, as Hurricane Gustav hit the Louisiana coast.
Republicans then were still reeling from criticism of President George W. Bush's handling of Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005.