TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Republicans are eager to showcase Mitt Romney as a man who understands everyday Americans and a leader who can fix the economy, with GOP National Convention speeches Tuesday by the woman who knows him best and tough-talking New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. But with New Orleans and much of the Gulf Coast waiting fearfully to see where a massive storm makes landfall, politics has become 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.
Christie, who delivers Tuesday's 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 GOP economic policies and Romney as the fixer. But ultimately, Christie said, it will up to Romney himself "to let the American people see who he is."
Eager to counter Romney's economic pitch to middle class voters, a super PAC supporting Obama unveiled an ad featuring a small businesss owner who criticized the candidate's record on job growth as Massachusetts governor.
The Romneys boarded a plane bound for Tampa, but it was a mystery whether the GOP candidate would attend the convention before his big address Thursday night.
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 began 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. The Romneys have five sons.
Isaac, the intensifying tropical storm bordering on a hurricane, 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.
Organizers essentially cut Monday from the schedule, calling the convention to order just long enough to recess it, and shoehorned their four-day showcase into the remaining three days. But even that was subject to change, depending on Isaac's whims.
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. On Monday, the president worked on preparations for the storm, declaring a state of emergency in Louisiana, speaking with governors and directing federal officials to coordinate disaster relief with state and local officials along the Gulf Coast.
That's not to say partisanship has subsided with Isaac's gathering strength. Hardly.
Obama, after a morning statement from the White House about Isaac, heads to Iowa on Tuesday as the first stop on a campaign trip in which he will make a personal appeal to college voters in three university towns: Ames, Iowa; Fort Collins, Colo.; and Charlottesville, Va.
On Twitter Monday night, Obama circulated a quotation from Women's Health Magazine suggesting that Republicans would take away women's right to contraception, which the Romney campaign denies. "Crazy as it sounds, the fight to limit or even ban birth control is a key issue in the upcoming presidential election," it said.
And Republicans made clear that Obama's performance is very much fair game for the convention. Reince Priebus, the Republican chairman, may have gone beyond Romney's comfort zone on that front when he told "CBS This Morning" that "we need to prosecute the president who seems to be in love with the sound of his own voice."
The suggestion of criminal proceedings against a president, however rhetorical, was a step beyond the ordinary, and Russ Schriefer, Romney's chief convention planner, appeared to dissociate himself from the remark. "I wouldn't define it that way and I wouldn't look at it that way," he told a news conference. "What we would want to do is define what President Obama has done over the last four years, how and why he's failed, and how his leadership has really failed the American people."
In a sign of just how stage-managed these conventions have become, the never-dull Christie did something he rarely does before a speech — wrote down a full text — as he prepared to deliver the keynote address Tuesday night. "They want you to work off a full text and that's fine," he told MSNBC. "I think my challenge up there is gonna be to be natural and be myself."
Romney managed to stir up the pot over abortion, if briefly, when he said in a CBS interview that he opposes abortions except "in the case of rape and incest, and the health and life of the mother." Any exceptions made solely on the basis of a woman's health have drawn particularly fierce criticism from abortion foes for years, because they argue such an exception is so broad as to do nothing to limit the procedure.
But Romney's aides quickly said he wasn't, in fact, advocating an exemption for a woman's health. "He opposes abortion except for cases of rape, incest and where the life of the mother is threatened," said Andrea Saul, a spokeswoman. Still, his comment underscored his difference of opinion on the subject with his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, as well as with his own convention platform, which opposes all abortions.
With the economy seen as Romney's strong suit, and Obama's economic record considered a fat target in a time of persistent unemployment over 8 percent, Republicans, both from the stage and the floor, want to keep a laser focus on the subject.
"We've got to make the case that he is uniquely qualified in this hour," said Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., interviewed in the hall. "This week is about convincing the 10 percent of undecided voters that Romney has always been called to come out and fix broken organizations."
Even so, there were unmistakable if gentle nudges from Republicans who say it is also vital for Romney to broaden his appeal.
"This is Romney's threshold moment," Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, wrote in The Washington Post. "He must demonstrate that he would follow the example of other Republican presidents in addressing issues important to women."
An AP-GfK poll of registered voters conducted from Aug. 16-20 found Obama leading Romney 50 percent to 44 percent among women. That represented a narrowing of the gap by Romney since a survey in May, when the president led 54-39 among female voters.
Romney trailed badly among another key group. 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.
Among seniors, the group most affected by a Medicare debate that has become central to the campaign, Romney led Obama by a margin of 52 percent to 42 percent in the recent AP-GfK poll. That was compared with 53-40 in May.