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Storm Rewrites GOP’s Script for Convention

Jim Rutenberg and Michael D. Shear|The New York Times
Monday, 27 Aug 2012 | 9:38 AM ET

The prospect of a major storm blowing through the Gulf of Mexico toward New Orleans upset the tight choreography of the Republican convention on Sunday, straining the party’s highly scripted plans for showcasing Mitt Romney and raising the possibility that news media attention could shift elsewhere.

Cars leave the Lower Keys on August 25, 2012 in Key West, Florida. Residents in the Florida Keys are preparing after a Hurricane Warning was issued as Tropical Storm Isaac tracks north.
Marc Serota / Getty Images
Cars leave the Lower Keys on August 25, 2012 in Key West, Florida. Residents in the Florida Keys are preparing after a Hurricane Warning was issued as Tropical Storm Isaac tracks north.

With the Tropical Storm Isaac now forecast to roar northwest past Tampa on Monday and Tuesday, officials scrambled to reconfigure what had been a four-night schedule into three and to make contingency plans for further changes.

But even if the storm largely bypasses this region, it holds the risk of creating an uncomfortable split-screen image, especially if it continues barreling toward New Orleans. The governors of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama declared states of emergency in anticipation of the storm.

Republicans were wary of the optics of television coverage split between the revelry and partisanship surrounding Mr. Romney’s nomination and the threat of the storm making landfall in Louisiana or Mississippi seven years to the week after Hurricane Katrina left an American city in ruins.

At the very least, Mr. Romney’s image makers were coming to terms with sharing the news spotlight with the storm just as they were hoping their gathering would give their candidate the exposure he needs to surge ahead of President Obama.

Instead of focusing on the convention and on Republicans descending on the swing state of Florida, local news outlets were giving constant and increasingly urgent updates on the storm’s path. Network correspondents here were girding to be reassigned from convention coverage to hurricane coverage, heavy rain gear and all. Fox News Channel said it was diverting a marquee anchor, Shepard Smith, to New Orleans from here.

En route from his vacation home in Wolfeboro, N.H., on Sunday for a speech rehearsal, Mr. Romney stayed optimistic, telling reporters who asked him if he was concerned, “It’ll be a great convention.” But, he said: “I hope everybody’s fine there. I’m concerned about the people that are going to be affected by it.”

Fearing high winds and pelting rains, Republicans had already canceled most of Monday’s formal events and they could not rule out a delay on Tuesday. Still, a sense of celebratory relief pervaded at the welcoming table at Tampa International Airport as conventiongoers welcomed the news that the worst of the storm would largely bypass Tampa.

A steel-drummer played sunny melodies as a greeter, Debbie Marvin, happily shared images of the storm’s track on her iPad with streams of arriving delegates. Ms. Marvin said that Floridians knew when a real hit was coming and that she never thought it was this time.

“They should ask the locals about the weather,” she said,

That was before it became clear that the storm was threatening to hit near New Orleans as a Category 2 hurricane packing winds of 100 miles an hour, and before some residents of Plaquemines Parish, which includes portions of New Orleans, were ordered to evacuate their homes on Monday.

It is the second consecutive time Republicans have had their conventions disrupted by the August storms. Faced with a similar prospect of a Gulf Coast hurricane four years ago during his convention in Minneapolis, Senator John McCain canceled the first night of ceremonies.

“Images of revelry by Republicans at a time of suffering by other Americans — no party wants those optics,” said Steve Schmidt, who helped lead Mr. McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign. “You have terrible awareness of all that stuff.”

The suffering from Hurricane Katrina was still fresh then, with the storm representing to Democrats a failure of compassion and competence by the Bush administration.

But Tropical Storm Isaac threatens to fit just as neatly into that kind of narrative, with Mr. Obama seeking to paint Mr. Romney and Mr. Ryan as opposed to a government that takes care of its most vulnerable and intent on cutting just the sort of federal services that can be critical in emergencies.

Challenging The Storm

On Sunday afternoon, the White House sent out a statement detailing Mr. Obama’s call to the Republican governor here, Rick Scott.

“The president also told the governor to let him know if there are any unmet needs or additional resources the administration could provide, including in support of efforts to ensure the safety of those visiting the state for the Republican National Convention,” it read.

The challenge the storm presented went beyond logistics and programming for the convention. As the American Petroleum Institute planned a concert and a party here to push its agenda, which includes expansion of oil exploration on federal lands, some of its members were ramping down production in the gulf and removing workers from platforms.

Governor Scott canceled his plans through Tuesday so he could focus solely on storm-related matters. The governor of Alabama, Robert Bentley, a Republican, announced that he would bow out of the convention so he could prepare his state for the storm. Several other officials in the region did the same.

Others were determined not to miss the convention despite the potential perils.

“This is the first convention I’ve ever been a part of, so I’m not going to let a hurricane stop me,” said Jeff Peacock, an alternate delegate for Mr. Romney from Atmore, Ala., which sits just over the Florida border. Mr. Peacock, who was on his way to Tampa in his car, said he had studied the storm’s track, secured some things around his yard and decided he would keep monitoring the storm’s path from the road.

Convention officials said the decision to cancel Monday’s program came when forecasters predicted that wind speeds would force planners to dismantle the many tents covering their security screening stations.

Party officials said that they were proceeding as if there would be no further delay or postponements, and that they were busy revising their convention plans to accommodate all the events. They said the logistics of restarting the convention on Tuesday were daunting.

Should the hurricane continue to pick up steam toward the coast, one official said on the condition of anonymity, another delay or a suspension would be likely because Mr. Romney’s strategists would not be “politically tone deaf to people negatively impacted by a hurricane.”

Officials said they were virtually making as many calls to the National Weather Service as they were to the legion of political allies and lawmakers gathered here.

Speaking with reporters late Sunday, Russ Schriefer, the campaign’s lead convention strategist, said, “We are obviously monitoring what is going on with the weather,” adding, “Our concern has to be with the people in the path of the storm.”

Much of the planners’ work Sunday entailed shortening some speeches and removing other speakers from the lineup entirely. Plans under way for months were suddenly being ripped up, but advisers insisted they could still pull off the overarching goal of the convention, which is to reintroduce Mr. Romney to a broader American audience.

The most important order of business, Mr. Romney’s formal nomination through a roll-call vote of delegates, is now set to take place on Tuesday. But convention officials were closely monitoring the storm and did not rule out the possibility of making additional changes.

Officials said they had pored through arcane party rules and determined that no matter what happens, they will be able to formalize Mr. Romney’s nomination by the end of the week, an especially critical piece of business that lets his campaign begin spending his huge general election bank account.

Jeff Zeleny and Lizette Alvarez contributed reporting.

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