The Republican National Convention to nominate Mitt Romney as the party's challenger to President Barack Obama was opened for just a few minutes today in a largely empty hall, a symbolic opening as delegates waited out a tropical storm on course to bring back memories of Hurricane Katrina.
Republicans effectively cancelled the first day of an event aimed at repairing party unity after a bruising primary season and recharging the campaign before the November 6 election. Polls show Obama holding a small lead in a race dominated by concerns about the still-struggling economy.
Romney's campaign looks forward to introducing their candidate to national television viewers with high-profile speeches from him, running mate Paul Ryan and party leaders in an attempt to show Romney as both a determined leader and a family figure. They hope to counter Democrats' attempts to brand him as a ruthless titan of the business world.
But the convention's script was being hurriedly reshaped Monday as Tropical Storm Isaac threatened to come ashore as a hurricane along the US Gulf Coast perhaps not far from New Orleans, almost seven years to the day after Katrina devastated the city, killed 1800 and led to criticism of Republican President George W Bush's response.
Romney suggested there were no thoughts of cancelling the convention and said he hopes those in the storm's path are "spared any major destruction".
The roll call of state delegations affirming Romney as the party's nominee now is to unfold tomorrow (overnight, NZT), an evening capped by speeches from wife Ann Romney and Republican governors. Ryan gets the prime-time spotlight on Thursday, and Romney closes out the spectacle on Friday, his springboard into the final leg of the contest.
But the storm risked the juxtaposition of Republicans partying as a potential hurricane churned toward the gulf shore.
"Obviously we want to pray for anyone that's in the pathway of this storm," Party Chairman Reince Priebus said Monday on NBC's Today show, "but the message is still the same: that all Americans deserve a better future and that this president ... didn't keep the promises he made in 2008".
Priebus opened the convention, citing rules requiring a 2pm Monday start (this morning, NZT), and then immediately recessed the session. It took less than two minutes.
It was clear that memories of Hurricane Katrina and the failure of a Republican administration to respond effectively to its devastation in 2005, were hanging over the event. Republicans have been so sensitive to the political risks from natural disasters that they delayed the start of their national convention by a day in 2008, when Hurricane Gustav bore down on the Gulf, far from their meeting in Minnesota.
Tampa, the site of this year's convention, early on had been seen as possibly being in the storm's direct path, but Isaac has taken a more western course.
The storm was a complication, at best, for a party determined to cast the close election as a referendum on Obama's economic stewardship and Romney as the best hope for jobs and prosperity.
The latest Associated Press-GfK poll puts the contest at 47 per cent for Obama to 46 per cent for Romney among registered voters.
In Washington, aides said Obama was being updated at the White House on the storm. He was still planning a two-day campaign trip to Iowa, Colorado and Virginia, beginning tonight (Tuesday morning, local time).
The tight election is coming down to several battleground states whose residents can't be counted on to reliably vote for one party or another: Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, New Hampshire, Ohio, Iowa, Colorado and Nevada. The US president is not chosen according to the nationwide popular vote but in state-by-state contests. Obama and Romney have been campaigning in those states over and over in recent weeks.
At the symbolic 10-minute opening session of the Republican gathering today, party officials launched a debt clock to show how much the government will borrow during the convention week alone. The party hammers Obama for running up government debt to record levels.
Romney says he would reduce the deficit by capping federal spending - now at 23.5 per cent of the U.S. economy - at 20 per cent by the end of his first term in January 2017. But he also wants to boost defence spending. So reductions could mean slashing health care for the poor and disabled and huge cuts to programmes like homeland security, air traffic control and law enforcement. Throughout nearly a year of campaigning, Romney has avoided saying what he'd cut.
Outside the convention, the storm was having an effect on protesters as well. About 200 of the 5000 people expected marched today to criticise Republicans' economic and social policies, and others gathered at an encampment called "Romneyville".
Hundreds of police officers and heavily armed members of the Florida National Guard patrolled the streets. The protesters were required to conduct their rallies and parades in designated areas and along specified routes, none closer than a few blocks from where Republicans would be gathering.
"They've militarised Tampa. The chilling effect has succeeded," said one protester, Cara Jennings.
Democrats have said they would resume their on-site efforts in Tampa to counter the Republican message after halting activities.