TAMPA, Fla. – Republicans launched Mitt Romney's national convention Monday with the bang of a gavel before a smattering of delegates as Tropical Storm Isaac led them to cancel most of the opening-day program.
Party Chairman Reince Priebus called the gathering to order, citing convention rules requiring a 2 p.m. Monday start, and then immediately recessed the session. It took less than two minutes.
Priebus then instructed delegates to look up at two "debt clocks" — one that reflects the actual national debt and a second that counts how much the debt will grow during the convention. It was quickly in six figures.
The convention will hit full speed on Tuesday, just as forecasters say the storm could reach hurricane strength and make landfall somewhere between Mississippi and New Orleans.
"Our sons are already in Tampa and they say it's terrific there, a lot of great friends. And we're looking forward to a great convention," Romney said Monday outside a New Hampshire high school auditorium where he rehearsed his convention speech.
He said he hoped those in the storm's path would be "spared any major destruction" but indicated there were no thoughts of canceling the convention in Tampa, where Isaac's heavy rain had all but passed.
Tom Del Beccaro, a California delegate and chair of the state GOP, predicted the one-day delay in full convention events would supercharge the rest of the week's meeting.
"I think there's going to be a lot of bottled up energy, and I think that's going to show," he said.
But Sally Bradshaw, a Florida Republican and longtime senior aide to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, was not so sanguine. "It's a mess all around and it's fraught with risk," she said. "It's not good for anybody — particularly the people impacted by the storm."
It was hardly the opening splash that convention planners had hoped for, and it risked the juxtaposition of Republicans partying as the storm barrels toward land — almost exactly seven years after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans.
Priebus was long gone from the podium when a handful of Ron Paul supporters hollered their support for the defeated presidential contender in a brief impromptu gathering at the rear of the convention hall.
They held up placards bearing Paul's name in front of a permanent sign that read, "We Can Do Better." The sign was there for Romney's purposes — meant to show that he could fix the economy — but Paul's backers appropriated it for their own use.
Paul's delegates are trying to mount a floor fight over new GOP rules designed to limit the ability of insurgent presidential candidates to amass delegates to future Republican conventions. It was unclear whether they could rally enough support to force a vote.
Outside the arena, the storm and a massive police presence limited protests, with only a fraction of the 5,000 expected demonstrators turning out to criticize the GOP's economic and social policies.
Due to the storm, the party hastily rewrote its convention script to present the extravaganza's prime rituals and headline speakers later in the week, and further changes were possible. Planners said Monday's speakers would be worked into the schedule later in the week.
"We're going to continue with our Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday schedule," said Russ Schriefer, the chief convention planner.
At least one speaker bowed out. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal announced Monday that he would not attend as the storm gathered strength and bore down on his home state.
As the weather threat to Tampa diminished, delegates focused on party message and the near-term task of making Romney the nominee and working to defeat Obama in November.
"There's a mission here," said Gary Harkins, a delegate from Brandon, Miss. "We have to nominate a candidate for president. Our mission is to save America from becoming a socialistic state."
Vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, speaking in his hometown of Janesville, Wis., before heading for the convention on Tuesday, delivered a message that echoed at meetings and news conferences all across Tampa — the Obama presidency has been a failure, and Romney offers a different course.
"We're not just picking the next president for a few years," he said. "We are picking the pathway for America for a generation."
Ryan warned the United States under Obama has faltered: "It's a nation in debt, it's a nation in doubt, it's a nation in decline," he said.
Sen. Rob Portman reinforced the message in Tampa, telling the Ohio delegation it was time for Obama "to stop blaming others and take responsibility."
"There are families all over Ohio that are suffering as a result. He hasn't measured up to his own standards," he said.
Democrats, for their part, said that if the Republican convention proceeds as planned Tuesday, they would resume their on-site efforts in Tampa to counter the GOP message. Democrats planned to focus Tuesday on Romney's record at Bain Capital and had several employees who worked for companies impacted by Bain in Tampa to talk to the media.
Democrats halted activities in their so-called "war room" Monday after Republicans essentially canceled the first day of the convention.
The weather was a constant concern for some. Jeanne Luckey of Ocean Springs, Miss., whose family lost a beachside home to Hurricane Katrina, said friends were helping secure their inland home for Isaac.
"It's a very busy time, certainly, but we've got to take care of the business of the party and make sure we get Governor Romney nominated," Luckey said. "We have a lot of work to do between now and November."
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 concern was two-fold: that Tampa, hosting thousands of GOP delegates, would get sideswiped by the storm; and that it would be unseemly to engage in days of political celebration if Isaac made a destructive landfall anywhere on U.S. soil.
"You can tone down the happy-days-are-here-again a bit," said Rich Galen, a veteran Republican consultant in Washington. "Maybe you don't have the biggest balloon drop in history."
In Washington, aides said Obama was being updated at the White House on the storm. He was still planning his two-day campaign trip to Iowa, Colorado and Virginia, beginning Tuesday morning.
In a boost to Obama's convention next week, Florida's former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist was added as a speaker. Crist had announced on Sunday that he was endorsing Obama, saying he was the correct choice and criticizing his former party for its move to the right.
The roll call of state delegations affirming Romney as the party's nominee now is to unfold Tuesday, an evening capped by speeches from Ann Romney and an assortment of GOP governors. Ryan gets the prime-time spotlight Wednesday, and Romney closes out the spectacle Thursday night, his springboard into the final leg of the contest. That's all if the storm brings no further complications.
Woodward reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Steve Peoples in New Hampshire; Thomas Beaumont, Tamara Lush and Brendan Farrington in Florida; Philip Elliott in Wisconsin; and Alicia A. Caldwell in Washington contributed to this report.