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A subdued start for GOP convention as Isaac surges

DAVID ESPO
AP Special Correspondent
TAMPA, Fla. — Republicans staged a remarkably subdued opening to Mitt Romney’s national convention Monday in the midst of a turbulent election year, mindful about uncorking a glittery political celebration as Tropical Storm Isaac surged menacingly toward New Orleans and the northern Gulf Coast.
“Our thoughts are with the people that are in the storm’s path and hope that they’re spared any major destruction,” said Romney, the man seeking to defeat Democratic President Barack Obama. “We’ve got a great convention ahead,” declared the candidate, who hopes to turn the campaign’s focus back to the nation’s sluggish economic growth and high unemployment.
Romney commented briefly at his summer home in New Hampshire, his arrival time uncertain in a convention city left unscathed as Isaac stormed by just to the west.
The convention’s first session lasted scarcely a minute, just long enough for the party’s chairman, Reince Priebus, to rap a gavel and declare the gathering open for business. As he did, high above the floor, numbers began flashing across an electronic tally board labeled “Debt from Convention Start,” meant to show the government steadily borrowing under Obama’s leadership throughout the convention.
The week was turning out to be about both meteorology and politics. Romney’s top aides and convention planners were juggling their desire for a robust rouse-the-Republicans convention with concern about appearing uncaring as New Orleans faced a threat from Isaac precisely seven years after the city was devastated by Hurricane Katrina.
Opinion polls made the presidential race nearly even as Republicans launched their convention, although it appeared Obama had a slim advantage in battleground states where the election is most likely to be decided. It was anything but certain what the impact would be on the campaign of back-to-back convention weeks, first Romney’s and then the president’s in Charlotte, N.C.
The economy is the number one issue by far in the polls, and Romney’s surrogates are seeking to make sure the campaign focus stays fixed on it.
A blunt view came from Gary Hawkins, a delegate from Brandon, Miss. “We have to nominate a candidate for president. Our mission is to save America from becoming a socialistic state,” he said.
In the convention hall, Priebus looked out at thousands of empty seats and a smattering of delegates in his brief turn on stage. Officials decided earlier in the week to scrap nearly all of the opening day’s program when it appeared that Isaac might make a direct hit on the convention city.
That put Romney’s formal nomination off by a day until Tuesday. Weather permitting, he delivers his acceptance speech on Thursday night, then embarks on a fall campaign that he hopes will propel him to the White House.
Romney’s wife, Ann, is on the speaking program for Tuesday evening, and it wasn’t known if he intended to be in the hall for her address.
“This week is about convincing the 10 percent of undecided voters that Romney has always been called to come out and fix broken organizations,” said Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., interviewed on the convention floor.