Romney faces balancing act with convention, storm

With Tropical Storm Isaac bearing down on the Gulf Coast, Republicans left open the possibility of bigger changes to Mitt Romney's already-shortened convention, mindful of political awkwardness in celebrating while severe weather threatens New Orleans on the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

"There's a weather event. We all know there's a weather event there," Russ Schriefer, Romney's chief planner, said Sunday when asked about a potential image problem. "We're obviously monitoring what is going on with the weather. Our concern is with those people in the path of the storm."

The decision about what to do next is fraught with political peril.

Romney is trying to balance celebrating his presidential nomination with being mindful of the ghost of Hurricane Katrina and the stain George W. Bush's handling of it left on the GOP. The tropical storm, which seemed likely to be upgraded to a hurricane, could strike the Gulf Coast nearly to the day of the seventh anniversary of Katrina.

After scrapping the convention's first day, planners late Sunday announced a three-day program and leaner agenda. But they wouldn't speculate whether the storm would force a second postponement or any additional changes.

"We're moving forward, but we are going to be nimble," Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said.

The next few days will test Romney's ability to both present himself to the American people as a plausible alternative to President Barack Obama and to lead a party still smarting from the image hit it took in the aftermath of the 2005 Gulf Coast devastation.

Since then, Republicans have been so sensitive to the political danger around hurricanes — and the appearance of partying at a time of trouble — that they delayed the start of their national convention by a day in 2008 when Hurricane Gustav bore down on the Gulf, a full 1,200 miles away from where delegates were gathering in St. Paul, Minn.

Four years later, a storm again has delayed the start of the convention — and again is barreling toward New Orleans, the city that Katrina so badly damaged.

"You don't want to be having hoopla and dancing when you have the nation focused on tragedy and suffering," said Al Hoffman, a Republican from West Palm Beach and former finance chairman of the RNC.

Memories of Katrina hung heavy over Tampa as Republican delegates traveled here to anoint the party's new standard-bearer. All over Florida — a critical battleground state — people were preparing for the worst. Homes and shops were boarded up in Key West. About 800 miles northwest in the Florida panhandle, the Wal-Mart in Destin, Fla., had sold out of bottled water.

In a conference call with reporters late Sunday, Schriefer sidestepped a question about the potentially problematic appearance of Republicans partying while a hurricane bore down on the very city that cast a pall over the last GOP administration.

Romney's team was sensitive to the comparison to the 2005 storm, which was a Category 5 hurricane. Isaac, still a tropical storm, was forecast to reach hurricane strength.

When asked about the optics, Charlie Black, a veteran GOP strategist and informal adviser to Romney, sharply noted that Romney played no role in the Bush administration's handling of the catastrophe.

"I don't recall Mitt Romney having anything to do with Katrina," said Black, also a senior adviser to McCain's campaign in 2008.

By Sunday afternoon, Tampa was cloud-covered and windy outside the hall where Romney is to accept the nomination Thursday night. Inside, tense Romney advisers huddled to figure out how to proceed.

"It's a mess all around and it's fraught with risk," said Sally Bradshaw, a Florida Republican and longtime senior aide to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. "It's not good for anybody — particularly the people impacted by the storm."

Weather was recognized as potential trouble when Republicans chose to hold their convention in Florida during hurricane season, a decision made well before Romney locked up the nomination.

Beyond the safety and image concerns, Isaac presents another wrinkle for Romney: It allows Obama to show leadership and flex the levers of his administration to help people bracing for a storm.

As forecasts grew grim, Obama dispatched the Federal Emergency Management Agency to assist, and the White House said the president was closely monitoring the storm.

"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," the White House said Sunday.

The president had no immediate plans to visit. But he might — as most presidents do — if the damage is severe. And if he does, Romney would have to weigh whether to proceed with his convention or scrap more parts of it — and cede the limelight to the man who holds the office he wants.

Mindful of the danger of appearing to put politics before safety, Vice President Joe Biden, the Obama campaign's surrogate-in-chief, canceled a campaign swing through Florida on Monday and Tuesday.

Back in Tampa, Romney's convention planners were busy working to cram four carefully scripted days of speechmaking and celebration into just three. The announcement delaying the start of the convention came late Saturday, with Romney mindful of the good politics of putting safety before, well, politics.

"The safety of those in Isaac's path is of the utmost importance," Romney said in a tweet late Saturday.

Insisting on a four-day affair could have put delegates' safety at risk, while tying up law enforcement and emergency officials who otherwise would be dispatched to deal with storm fallout. That would have left a black mark on the convention, with potentially lasting political consequences in a critical battleground state and perhaps elsewhere.

Romney's decision drew praise.

"Governor Romney and his team have handled the situation correctly," former Gov. Bush, a Republican, told The Associated Press. He added: "There is no reason to cancel the event."

Michigan delegate Saul Anuzis agreed, saying: "It's such a huge logistical event, you can't call it off."

The question Romney and his team continue to weigh: how to proceed with the party while being sensitive to the uncertainty of Isaac and its potential to wreak havoc on the Gulf Coast, which has become a symbol of dysfunctional government under a Republican administration.

Among the considerations: whether to tone down plans to sharply criticize Obama and focus more heavily on Romney's other goal, promoting his own vision. Speakers scheduled for Monday had planned to start making the case against Obama.

Republican strategists suggested Romney celebrate without going overboard.

"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."


Associated Press writer Steve Peoples contributed from Wolfeboro, N.H.