TAMPA, Fla. – Poised at last to claim the prize he's been chasing for years, Mitt Romney barreled into his convention city Tuesday as Republicans worked to showcase him at their national convention as a man who understands everyday Americans and a leader who can fix the economy.
Ann Romney, the woman who knows him best, said she was tickled that her husband would be on hand for her evening speech to the convention. And tough-talking New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was ready to make the case in his keynote address for Romney as the right leader to get the economy moving.
"It's going to be fun for him to be there," Mrs. Romney told reporters before touching down in Tampa, where she headed to the convention hall for a microphone check, practicing with a few lines from Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. Running mate Paul Ryan arrived in the convention city, too, still tweaking the speech he'll deliver Wednesday.
But with New Orleans and much of the Gulf Coast waiting fearfully to see where Hurricane Isaac makes landfall, politics became an awkward enterprise and no one knows what sort of party the GOP gathering will turn out to be.
After a one-day weather delay, the convention proceeds according to its latest script: delivering Romney the presidential nomination he fought years to achieve, calling the party to unify around him and setting the stage for the final stretch of the hotly contested campaign to unseat President Barack Obama.
Obama, not one to cede the spotlight, tended to presidential business by urging Gulf Coast residents to prepare for the storm. Then he left the White House on a three-state campaign trip focused on winning over college students.
In his first stop at Iowa State University, the president began with a pledge that "when disaster strikes, we're not Democrats or Republicans first, we are Americans first." In the same remarks, he let loose on Republicans, saying the GOP convention "should be a pretty entertaining show. ... But what you won't hear from them is a path forward that meets the challenges of our time."
Mindful of the political perils of campaigning in the face of a natural disaster, aides said Obama was open to adjusting his schedule if warranted. But campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki added: "It's important for him to be out there less than 70 days before the election making the case for why he's a better choice for the American people."
Romney has largely finalized his own Thursday convention speech, said aide Stuart Stevens, and it will be "a clear vision of a Romney presidency and very much from his heart about America and why he wants to be president and what his presidency would be like."
Like Obama, Romney was closely watching Isaac's path. A campaign aide said Romney had spoken with Govs. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Phil Bryant of Mississippi and Robert Bentley of Alabama about the hurricane's threat and emergency response plans.
The cash demands of campaigning never far away, Romney also worked two fundraisers into the schedule for his first day in Tampa, while Ann Romney and Ryan both popped out new email appeals for campaign contributions. Obama campaign manager Jim Messina was out with his own fundraising appeal for cash to fight what he said were sure to be distortions at the GOP convention.
Tuesday's convention business got under way at midafternoon, attended by delegates wearing the requisite complement of funny hats and patriotic attire. A string of congressional candidates were set to warm up the crowd for the roll call of the states that will nominate Romney, followed by the evening's main speakers.
Christie, ready for his keynote address, said that for those Americans who aren't yet sold on Romney, "you start turning it around tonight."
In a round of morning talk-show appearances, Christie said Ann Romney would humanize her husband for the nation, and that his own speech would make the case for Romney's economic credentials. But ultimately, Christie said, it will up to Romney himself "to let the American people see who he is."
Meeting with Michigan delegates, Christie insisted that an effective president trumps likability.
"We need somebody who cares more about getting the job done than they care about being temporarily popular with any particular segment of our country," Christie said.
Christie has his own fan club.
"I just love him," said Sandy Barber, a delegate from rural northwest Ohio. "He's plain-talking. He's himself. He's someone who lets his personality come through."
Romney, Barber allowed, "is a different kind of personality. His personality exudes leadership."
Part of the Tampa tableau: a slew of GOP presidential also-rans: Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain posed for a photo after running into each other at the convention center. Cain joked that the caption could be: "We ain't mad. We support Mitt and Ryan." Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum were on hand too, both with speaking slots.
The high campaign season opens with Romney and Obama about even in the last of the pre-convention polls, with each candidate possessing distinct and important advantages. The Democrat is the more likable or empathetic leader; the Republican is more highly regarded as the candidate who can restore the economy, the top issue for voters.
Ann Romney's convention speech was designed to speak to that divide. It was an important part of the GOP's effort to flesh out her husband and present him to the nation as more than a successful businessman and the former Republican governor of a Democratic state, Massachusetts.
She went about the business of humanizing the Romney family with a taped appearance on "CBS This Morning" in which she talked about the pain of a miscarriage, telling details about the experience that were news even to her husband. The Romneys have five sons.
Isaac, which reached hurricane strength Tuesday, skirted Tampa, a big relief for convention organizers worried about the safety of the host city and GOP delegates. But they remain saddled with the question of how to proceed with a political festival — one devoted both to scoring points against Obama and firing up excitement for Romney — under the shadow of a dangerous storm crawling toward the Gulf Coast.
Tampa awoke to sunny skies Tuesday while convention planners monitored weather reports for the storm's impact on the Gulf Coast some seven years since Hurricane Katrina devastated the region.
In a reminder of both the storm and the presidency, Obama warned residents of the Gulf Coast to heed warnings from local officials.
Republicans plainly had more at stake in their convention week — Democrats meet next week in Charlotte, N.C. — but the Obama campaign also had to recalibrate its tactics as Gulf residents fled their homes or hunkered down. Vice President Joe Biden was called off a Romney-bashing trip to Florida.
That's not to say partisanship has subsided with Isaac's gathering strength. Hardly.
Eager to counter Romney's economic pitch to middle-class voters, a super PAC supporting Obama unveiled an ad featuring a small business owner who criticized the candidate's record on job growth as Massachusetts governor.
Obama was making his personal appeal to young voters in three university towns: Ames, Iowa; Fort Collins, Colo.; and Charlottesville, Va. At his first stop in Iowa, he told students they have the most at stake in this year's presidential election and that Romney has written off young people as a "lost generation."
Awaiting the president in Iowa: An article in the Des Moines Register in which 1996 Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole called Romney and Ryan a "dream ticket."
The two "have a program to turn the economy around that is the most thoughtful and comprehensive I have seen in my lifetime, and I have seen a lot," wrote the 89-year-old Dole.
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, part of the Democratic opposition team in Tampa, said Republican efforts to use Latino speakers at the convention to win over Hispanic voters won't work.
"You can't just trot out a brown face or a Spanish surname and expect people are going to vote for your party or your candidate," he said. "Window dressing doesn't do much for a candidate. It's your policies, your platform."
Polls show Romney trailing badly among Hispanic voters. A Gallup poll taken between July 30 and Aug. 1 found Obama winning 60 percent support among Hispanic voters, and the Republican at 27 percent, little different from 64-29 earlier in the year.
Woodward reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Brian Bakst, Thomas Beaumont, Tamara Lush, Brendan Farrington and Julie Mazziotta in Florida; Julie Pace in Iowa, Steve Peoples in New Hampshire; Philip Elliott in Wisconsin and Steven Ohlemacher, Alicia A. Caldwell and Jennifer Agiesta in Washington contributed to this report.