Shifting Storm Path Poses New Challenges for GOP

National Journal

Tropical Storm Isaac is veering away from a direct hit on Tampa Bay and toward a potentially large political problem for Mitt Romney and the Republican National Convention delegates poised to nominate him for president.

The National Weather Service reported on Sunday evening that Isaac was spinning away from the Florida Gulf Coast as it travels north, but forecasters warned that up to 10 inches of rain could still pelt the Tampa area and that water could rise 2 to 4 feet, flooding low-lying areas. The service issued a hurricane warning for metropolitan New Orleans.

The forecasts buoyed some GOP delegates, who vowed on Sunday to golf, jet ski, and parasail their way through what was supposed to have been their first day of convention business. 

Isaac may have scuttled Monday’s official events, but Wisconsin’s attorney general, J.B. Van Hollen, summed up the storm’s effect on the spirits the delegates, alternates, and guests gathered here: “It is not going to rain on their parade.”

Still, Isaac’s new path poses political risks. It is now on track to slam New Orleans, at hurricane strength, in the middle of the week—just as Romney and Paul Ryan are set to address the convention on national television. The events happen to coincide with the seven-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall on the Louisiana coast.

Katrina—and the Bush administration’s initial response to it—is such a political albatross that the GOP canceled the first day of its 2008 convention amid fears of appearing callous to the plight of Gulf Coast residents enduring a different hurricane, Gustav, that proved far less damaging. 

This year, similar concerns over optics have pushed party officials to consider alternative scheduling strategies for the convention’s most-important-for-television moments, including extending activities through Friday. Romney campaign officials denied on Sunday that an extension to Friday was under consideration.

Party officials announced a shorter and shuffled roster of prime-time speakers, and said that more Isaac-influenced changes could come. Event organizers outside the official convention were leaving open the possibility on Sunday afternoon of canceling Monday events at the last minute if the weather should worsen. Most Monday events were canceled at Liberty Plaza, a temporary event space in a parking lot near the Tampa Bay Times Forum.

Delegates’ most immediate concern is how to spend a Monday suddenly free of official duties.

Renee Dabbs, a Florida political consultant who has organized the Washington state delegation’s stay at a beachside Holiday Inn in Clearwater, told delegates on Sunday, “It’s really almost a gift that you’re going to have time, because you’re staying on one of the most beautiful beaches in our state.” 

The contingent agreed. Kirby Wilbur, the state party chairman, said he was thinking about holding a poker tournament to raise money for the party, or “about parasailing in 70 mph wind.” One delegate said she was hoping to take out a Jet Ski in the Gulf of Mexico. Dino Rossi, the Republican nominee for governor in 2004 and 2008 and Senate in 2010, said he might hit the links. “I brought my clubs, so I might play if we don’t do anything,” he said. “Or just go to the beach.”

Others were more cautious. “I’m an old farm boy from Missouri; we go pretty well in any weather,” said Missouri delegate Jim Willis, 57. “But even a farm boy hunkers down when a tornado’s coming. I’ve never been around a hurricane, but you’ve gotta put safety first.”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency warned Florida residents on Sunday to monitor weather conditions and to prepare for possible storm effects by filling gas tanks, stocking up on cash, and planning evacuation routes. 

Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who has the authority to mandate an evacuation, is giving delegates and other convention participants a choice to stay in their location. He and Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor said they don’t expect to force evacuation unless the storm alters course. 

“If it changes, if it becomes issue of public safety, then we will order people into safety, into shelter,” Castor said during a Sunday press conference. 

Convention protesters said that the expected wind and rain won’t dampen their plans to march on the convention site on Monday. The Coalition to March on the RNC, a group that includes several Occupy groups from Florida, tweeted Sunday, “The Republicans have their mansions to weather the storm. We have the streets.”

Marisol Marquez, one of the lead organizers, said that the group ordered ponchos by the case. “We also have baggies,” she said. 

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