Romney to arrive in Tampa as Isaac barrels toward New Orleans

Romney to arrive in Tampa as Isaac barrels toward New Orleans

TAMPA, Fla. — Mitt Romney will arrive in Tampa on Tuesday for the opening night of the Republican National Convention, and organizers remained cautiously optimistic the storm that has loomed, both metaphorically and literally, over the gathering would not overshadow their nominee.

Romney arrives on the day GOP delegates officially elect him as the party’s presidential nominee and the convention’s high profile speakers include his wife, Ann Romney, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

As the sun peaked occasionally through the clouds on Monday, convention organizers said the event would go forward “full steam ahead.”

Boosting their confidence was the fact that the dire predictions for Tampa didn’t come true. Instead of the downtown area being covered in water, there were only occasional showers and wind.

And while Tropical Storm Isaac continued to build strength in the Gulf of Mexico — and maintained its path directly toward New Orleans — FEMA expressed confidence the city was prepared.

“This wasn’t exactly Moses parting the Red Sea, but last week when we met with the platform committee, it looked like the eye of the storm was going to head straight for Tampa and now, of course, as the day’s gone on it’s tracking further west and we knew that we are not going to receive a major impact,” said American Conservative Union Chairman Al Cardenas.

Top-level Republicans also battled back against concerns that the convention could turn into a net negative for Romney, with networks planning split-screen coverage between the event and the storm — and reminding viewers of former President George W. Bush’s controversial handling of Hurricane Katrina.

“I don’t think it will have any significant impact on the capacity for this to be a springboard for Romney and [running mate Paul] Ryan,” former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour said at a breakfast at Tampa’s Hyatt Regency. 

Former presidential candidates, including Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain, roaming the convention’s press center, similarly downplayed the storm’s impact on the Republican program. While Gingrich told reporters that it appeared conventioneers “have settled in pretty well,” Cain said he didn’t believe “it is necessary to call it off at all unless there is a major, major tragedy like Hurricane Katrina.”

During a conference call Monday evening with reporters, Romney aide Russ Schriefer said organizers expected no further changes to the convention agenda.

“We are at full steam ahead with our Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday schedule,” Schriefer said.

Republican officials had refused to rule out dramatic schedule changes as recently as Sunday night, but by Monday afternoon, GOP leaders were pushing back strongly on reports that organizers had been considering canceling or severely scaling back the convention.

“Right now I can tell you I haven’t had any conversations about changing plans on Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday,” said Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus. “There were reports out there that we were going to be going on Friday, there were reports that we were shortening something — none of that is true. I’m telling you, nothing like that was ever discussed. Of course we are mindful of the impact this hurricane can have. We have to be nimble, which we will be, but right now we see us moving forward as planned.”

That sentiment was echoed by another aide to the Romney campaign, who said the campaign and convention organizers were “moving forward on the convention, because you have to.”

“Obviously, if the storm takes a turn for the worse, we’ll have to make decisions as they come up,” the aide said. “But this idea that we’ve already decided to move this to one day or cancel is just a complete fantasy.”

Instead, Republicans were looking to highlight a Tuesday program featuring many of the rising stars of the party — including Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and the keynote address from Christie.

Schriefer said organizers were “particularly” excited for a speech by former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.), who was expected to discuss his background as a son of immigrants — and tie into recent Romney attacks on changes proposed by the Obama administration to welfare’s work requirement.

“You’re beginning to see this thing pick up,” said Cardenas. 

Still, one governor will be conspicuously absent from the Tuesday-evening slate: Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who said on Monday he would not attend the convention so he could lead emergency efforts in his state.

Jindal said at a press conference it was “no time for party politics” and that the “storm is nonpartisan.”

And while many Republicans were looking forward to a day of activities, there still was a wary eye trained on the Gulf of Mexico.

President Obama declared a state of emergency in Louisiana ahead of Isaac’s landfall, which is expected sometime Tuesday, and Jindal joined Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant and New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu on a coordination teleconference with the president.

“It’s going to be a question of how strong does this storm build in this water out in the Gulf of Mexico,” House Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerA warning to Ryan’s successor: The Speakership is no cakewalk With Ryan out, let’s blow up the process for selecting the next Speaker Race for Republican Speaker rare chance to unify party for election MORE (R-Ohio) told ABC News Monday in Tampa. “After what they’ve been through with Katrina, to have another big hurricane come there, it’s a cause for concern.”

Priebus, who officially opened the convention Monday afternoon with a prayer for those who might be affected by the storm, said the convention would undoubtedly see some changes in tone as a result.

But, much like Republicans ahead of Tuesday’s convention opening, federal emergency officials sounded a reservedly hopeful tone while discussing the storm. On a conference call with reporters, Federal Emergency Management Agency officials said updated levees outside New Orleans are better equipped to handle storms than they were pre-Katrina, and should be equipped to handle hurricanes stronger than Isaac is projected to be.

“It’s a much more robust system than what it was when Katrina came ashore,” FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate said.

— Cameron Joseph, Emily Goodin and Erik Wasson contributed to this report.