TAMPA, Fla. (AP) - Republicans staged a subdued opening to Mitt Romney's national convention Monday, mindful about uncorking a glittery political celebration as Tropical Storm Isaac surged 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.
Delegates watch a video presentation during an abbreviated session of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., on Monday.
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.
"We've got to make the case that he is uniquely qualified in this hour" he said, adding that the "country is in bankruptcy."
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, carried a similar message to his state's delegates at a morning meeting.
"It's time to stop blaming others and take responsibility," he said in a reference to the president. "There are families all over Ohio that are suffering as a result. He hasn't measured up to his own standards. "
What passed for vocal dissent within the party came from supporters of Rep. Ron Paul, a Texas Republican who ran for the presidential nomination but failed to win a primary or caucus.
Delegates loyal to him threatened a floor fight later in the week over party rules. And they staged a brief but noisy demonstration at the rear of the convention hall after Priebus completed his brief turn at the podium, holding up placards bearing their man's name. They stood in front of a permanent sign that said "We Can Do Better," appropriating Romney's pledge to fix the economy to express a preference for their man.
More than dissent, there was concern from within the party, though couched in supportive terms, that despite the political opportunity that the weak economy presents, Romney needs to broaden GOP appeal.
"This is Romney's threshold moment. He must demonstrate that he would follow the example of other Republican presidents in addressing issues important to women," Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, wrote in The Washington Post, one of several party leaders to express the view.
Not that Obama and his surrogates were letting up on that subject.
In a tweet on Monday night, Obama circulated a quotation from Women's Health Magazine suggesting that Republicans would take away women's right to contraception.