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Republicans blown off course by storm

The party seems mindful of the political awkwardness of celebrating while severe weather threatens New Orleans on the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

Police officers check the documents of protesters carrying an effigy of US Republican Party presidential candidate Mitt Romney during a demonstration outside a Republican national convention in Tampa, Florida.
Police officers check the documents of protesters carrying an effigy of US Republican Party presidential candidate Mitt Romney during a demonstration outside a Republican national convention in Tampa, Florida.

TAMPA, Florida // Republicans yesterday left open the possibility of bigger changes to Mitt Romney's already-shortened convention as Tropical Storm Isaac bore down on the Gulf Coast.

The party seems mindful of the political awkwardness of celebrating while severe weather threatens New Orleans on the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

"There's a weather event. We all know there's a weather event there," Russ Schriefer, Mr Romney's chief planner, said on Sunday when asked about a potential image problem. "We're obviously monitoring what is going on with the weather. Our concern is with those people in the path of the storm."

The decision about what to do next is fraught with political peril.

Mr Romney must try to balance celebrating his presidential nomination with being mindful of the ghost of Hurricane Katrina and the stain that George W Bush's handling of it left on the Republican Party.

The tropical storm, which yesterday seemed likely to be upgraded to a hurricane, could strike the Gulf Coast nearly to the day of the seventh anniversary of Katrina.

After scrapping the convention's first day, planners on Sunday announced a three-day programme and leaner agenda. But they would not speculate whether the storm would force a second postponement or any additional changes.

"We're moving forward, but we are going to be nimble," said the Republican National Committee chairman, Reince Priebus.

The next few days will test Mr Romney's ability to both present himself to the American people as a plausible alternative to the president, Barack Obama, and to lead a party still smarting from the damage to its image in the aftermath of the 2005 devastation.

Since then, Republicans have been so sensitive to the political danger around hurricanes - and the appearance of partying at a time of trouble - that they delayed the start of their national convention by a day in 2008 when Hurricane Gustav bore down on the Gulf, a full 1,931 kilometres away from where delegates were gathering in Minnesota.

Four years later, a storm again has delayed the start of the convention - and again is barrelling toward New Orleans, the city that Katrina so badly damaged.

"You don't want to be having hoopla and dancing when you have the nation focused on tragedy and suffering," said Al Hoffman, a Republican from West Palm Beach.

Memories of Katrina hung heavy over Tampa as Republican delegates arrived to anoint the party's new standard-bearer.

All over Florida, people were preparing for the worst. Homes and shops were boarded up in Key West. About 1,287 kilometres north-west in the Florida panhandle, the Wal-Mart in Destin had sold out of bottled water.

Late on Sunday, Mr Schriefer sidestepped questions about the potentially problematic appearance of Republicans partying while a hurricane bore down on the very city that cast a shadow over the last Republican administration.

Mr Romney's team was sensitive to the comparison with the 2005 storm, which was a Category 5 hurricane. Isaac, still a tropical storm, was forecast to reach hurricane strength. When asked about the optics, Charlie Black, a veteran Republican strategist, noted that Mr Romney played no role in the Bush administration's handling of the catastrophe.

"I don't recall Mitt Romney having anything to do with Katrina," said Mr Black, also a senior adviser to John McCain's campaign in 2008.

On Sunday afternoon, Tampa was cloud-covered and windy outside the hall where Mr Romney is due to accept his nomination on Thursday night. Inside, tense advisers huddled to figure out how to proceed.

"It's a mess all around and it's fraught with risk," said Sally Bradshaw, a Florida Republican and longtime senior aide to the former Florida governor, Jeb Bush. "It's not good for anybody - particularly the people impacted by the storm."

The weather was recognised as a potential problem when the Republicans chose to hold their convention in Florida during hurricane season - a decision made well before Mr Romney locked up the nomination.

Beyond safety and image concerns, Isaac presents another wrinkle for Mr Romney - it allows the president to show leadership and flex the levers of his administration to help people bracing for a storm.

As forecasts grew grim, Mr Obama dispatched the Federal Emergency Management Agency to assist, and the White House said the president was closely monitoring the storm.

In Tampa, convention planners were busy working to cram four carefully scripted days of speechmaking and celebration into just three.

The announcement delaying the start of the convention came late on Saturday, with Mr Romney mindful of the good politics of putting safety before, well, politics.

"The safety of those in Isaac's path is of the utmost importance," Mr Romney tweeted on Saturday.