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Fears of Hurricane Katrina repeat haunt opening of Republican convention

TAMPA, Fla. — An intensifying tropical storm barreling toward New Orleans forced presumptive GOP presidential pick Mitt Romney into emergency convention plans Monday amid fears that the Republicans' four-day party would coincide with disaster in the Gulf.

Tropical Storm Isaac is poised to develop into a Category 1 hurricane with winds of at least 74 mph building up dangerous sea levels, and on Sunday it was already throwing the GOP standard bearer's carefully choreographed debut into chaos.

Thousands of delegates and politicians arrived at the convention site to a breeze and light rain, thought the wind had picked up by Monday morning. 

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Still, it seems likely likely the convention will not suffer a direct hit, as the eye of the storm is moving west of Tampa. But meteorologists said the storm could gain strength over the Gulf of Mexico before hitting the Gulf Coast on Tuesday or Wednesday — which would mark the seventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who is scheduled to address the GOP convention on Wednesday, declared a state of emergency in his state and urged people in low-lying areas to voluntarily evacuate. Jindal said he won’t come to Tampa unless the storm dissipates.

Romney remains in New Hampshire, but said Monday his thoughts were with the people in the storm's path, according to The Washington Post. 

Asked if he is considering canceling the convention, he added, “Got a great convention ahead,” according to the Post. 

Republicans scrambled Sunday to reschedule high-profile speakers like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush within an already crammed slate after events were canceled on Monday for fear Isaac could hit the convention site.

Senior Romney strategist Russ Schriefer on Sunday appeared to leave open the possibility that the convention, presently scheduled to end Thursday, might be extended through Friday.

“We are planning on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday,” he said. “If the weather changes in a way that we have to make some changes — it’s a hypothetical question, I don’t want to answer it in that way.”

But GOP strategist Alex Castellanos said on CNN that pushing back to Friday is “almost impossible” from a logistical point of view. The delegates who arrived this weekend are set to leave on Friday, meaning speakers at an extended convention could find themselves addressing a half-empty convention center.

For now, Schriefer said no changes had been made to the prime-time speaking slots scheduled for Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, which include the party’s vice presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.); Mitt Romney’s wife, Ann; and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who is slated to introduce the presumptive nominee.

However, Schriefer said some non-headline speakers would be bumped, some speeches would have to be shortened and the prime-time events would begin an hour early, at 7 p.m. EST.

“There’s a weather event, we all know that,” Schriefer said when asked about the possibility of the storm hitting New Orleans. “At the same time, we’re obviously monitoring what is going on with the weather. Our concern has to be with the people who are in the path of the storm.”

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said that the condensed schedule would not weaken the party’s message. “The DNC has a shortened schedule next week. Three-day conventions — we can have a great week,” said Priebus, in an interview aired Monday on NBC's "Today."

He acknowledged that the convention would compete for headlines with the storm, but said that the GOP message would carry beyond this week.

“It’s a terrible thing. We certainly hope it doesn’t develop into something stronger. We have to tell the Mitt Romney story and prosecute the president on what he promised, what he delivered. And at the same time you have to report on this storm, because it is something that people need to know about,” said Priebus to NBC’s Matt Lauer.

Some parties were canceled on Sunday and Monday, though other efforts went forward. Hundreds of supporters packed Whiskey Joe’s Bar & Grill for Sunday night’s Ron Paul Liberty Rocks Beach Party, while thousands of delegates and media members migrated across Tampa Bay to the convention kickoff party at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg. Performances included "American Idol" contestant Shannon Magrane and country star Rodney Atkins, although a much-anticipated Lynyrd Skynyrd concert was canceled.

At the Ron Paul event, musicians John Popper, of Blues Traveler, and Aimee Allen kept the music going despite sometimes-strong winds that kept palm-tree leaves blowing. 

While in the short term Isaac is a big problem for Republicans in Tampa, it could also have severe consequences for Obama.

While the storm could provide a chance for the president to show leadership, it could also quickly cause gas prices to jump at a time when the economy is already struggling.

Isaac already is curtailing U.S. oil production as companies evacuate Gulf of Mexico platforms ahead of the storm, and as it moves away from Tampa and closer to the center of the Gulf, it only gets worse for oil production.

The Interior Department estimated Sunday that 24 percent of Gulf oil production has been halted due to the precautions.

The Gulf accounts for almost a quarter of overall U.S. crude oil production, according to the federal Energy Information Administration.

Nationwide regular gasoline prices averaged $3.75 on Sunday, according to AAA, up slightly from Saturday.

This is the second consecutive GOP convention to be affected by a hurricane. Four years ago, Republicans canceled some events on the first day of their national convention in Minneapolis-St. Paul when Hurricane Gustav struck the Gulf Coast of Louisiana, and the GOP now finds itself in a nearly identical situation.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) declared a state of emergency in Florida on Saturday, a step that will help federal and state officials coordinate their response. Scott, who had been scheduled to speak in Tampa, canceled his plans to attend the convention and said he would remain in Tallahassee to oversee emergency efforts.

Obama called Scott on Sunday, offering the federal government's help in responding to the storm. Obama told Scott the federal government was ready to help provide any assistance the state needed, including for efforts to ensure the safety of visitors to the GOP convention.

The National Hurricane Center issued a warning for the Gulf Coast stretching from Morgan City, La., to Destin, Fla. The governors of Mississippi and Alabama have also encouraged many coastal residents to begin evacuating ahead of the expected landfall.

Judy Kurtz, Ben Geman and Bob Cusack contributed to this story.

This story was published on Aug. 26 at 11:48 p.m. was last updated at 9:42 a.m.