POLITICS

Romney arrives at Republican convention overshadowed by Gulf Coast hurricane

08/28/2012 03:12 EDT | Updated 10/28/2012 05:12 EDT
TAMPA, Fla. - Mitt Romney was crowned the Republican presidential nominee on Tuesday at the party's national convention, but his rare moment in the sun following a bruising primary battle was clouded by a fierce hurricane battering the Gulf Coast.

Delegates from every U.S. state and territory officially affirmed Romney as the party's nominee, finally celebrating him as the man they hope will deny President Barack Obama a second term on Nov. 6 with a conservative platform of lower taxes, fiscal responsibility and small government.

His wife of 43 years, Ann Romney, opened her hotly anticipated speech on the convention's opening night to ask delegates to remember those in the path of hurricane Isaac before taking dead aim at criticisms that the Republican party — and by extension, her husband — is anti-woman.

"I love you women, and I hear your voices," she said. "You are the best of America. You are the hope of America. There would not be an America without you. Tonight, we salute you and sing your praises."

But seven years after Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast and the city of New Orleans, another hurricane — this one dubbed Isaac — cast a pall over Romney's triumph.

The convention started a day late because of Isaac, a slow-moving but powerful hurricane packing 120-kilometre-an-hour winds and following the same ominous trajectory as Katrina. There were also tornado warnings in some Gulf states late Tuesday.

New Orleans has still not fully recovered from Katrina, which roared ashore exactly seven years ago Wednesday. George W. Bush's much-maligned response to that hurricane was considered one of the lowest moments of the Republican president's eight years in office.

Hurricane Isaac, thankfully, wasn't as mighty as Katrina as it made landfall in Louisiana late Tuesday evening, though meteorologists warned it could gain strength overnight. Federal officials said the galvanized levees around New Orleans can withstand stronger storms than Isaac.

Convention organizers were fretting, however, about how the Republican party, already perceived as callous by some Americans, would be regarded if seen jubilantly feting Romney while hurricane-weary Gulf Coast residents dealt with yet another pounding from Mother Nature.

Negative perceptions about the party haven't been helped in recent days by Romney surrogate John Sununu, who griped Tuesday about the attention the media is paying to the storm.

"We aren't talking about jobs," Sununu, a Romney campaign co-chairman and former New Hampshire governor, said on Fox News. "It's the media that is obsessed with Mother Nature."

A few days earlier, Sununu expressed hope that Isaac "moves as far west as he can" so that the convention wasn't disrupted.

Media coverage of the convention, indeed, has been significantly curtailed by the hurricane, even as 20,000 delegates mill about Tampa. Among those spotted in the throngs have been libertarian billionaire David Koch and actor Jon Voight.

Despite the star power, news crews outside the centre at mid-day on Tuesday were asking delegates as many questions about Isaac as about Romney, and the all-news cable channels were consumed with the hurricane despite the presumptive nominee's arrival in Florida earlier in the day.

Hurricane Isaac already prompted Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Florida Gov. Rick Scott to cancel their planned speeches at the convention. Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley also scrubbed his trip to Tampa.

Romney had not originally planned to fly to Tampa until Thursday to accept the nomination. But his campaign said he changed his mind in order to take in his wife's remarks.

Ann Romney told of her "deep and abiding love" for her husband, saying she was still in love with him more than four decades after meeting him at a high-school dance.

"Mitt doesn't like to talk about how he's helped others, because he sees it as a privilege, not a political talking point," she said to cheers.

Her goal was to humanize a politician often perceived as emotionally remote. Indeed, Romney was seen backstage gazing lovingly at a TV screen as his wife spoke, and he strode onto the stage to praise and embrace her after she wrapped up her remarks.

In addition to giving Americans a more intimate look at a candidate and his family, U.S. political conventions also serve to show the party has come together. That's particularly important for Romney in 2012 following the bitter Republican primaries and a party base that has long lacked enthusiasm for his candidacy.

Christian evangelicals are especially wary of Romney, who was pro-choice 10 years ago as Massachusetts governor. Now Romney says he's pro-life.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie took to the stage after Ann Romney. But his remarks, focusing on his Sicilian mother and the need to return to civility in politics, seemed more like a warm-up for a run for president himself in 2016 given more than 15 minutes passed before he mentioned Romney by name.

"The greatest lesson Mom ever taught me ... was this one: she told me there would be times in your life when you have to choose between being loved and being respected," Christie said.

"She said to always pick being respected."

Sitting in the VIP box of the convention centre, Romney looked pained at times as he listened to Christie's remarks, particularly since his wife's speech minutes earlier had focused on the importance of love.

In addition to the hurricane gaining steam a few hundred miles to the northwest, a political tempest also erupted on the convention floor during the customary roll call that resulted in Romney officially becoming the party's presidential nominee.

Libertarian congressman Ron Paul's name wasn't mentioned by announcers from the podium throughout the roll call, despite the fact that he beat Romney in some states during his own run for the party's nomination.

Some of Paul's supporters stormed out of the glittering waterfront convention centre ahead of Tuesday's prime-time appearances by Ann Romney, Christie and one-time presidential hopeful Rick Santorum.

The presence of Paul on the convention floor earlier Tuesday underscored yet another source of tension amid a party base that's an uneasy coalition of disparate factions.

Paul's supporters started chanting "let him speak" as he arrived at the convention.

The elderly Texas lawmaker turned down an offer to make a speech at the convention after Republican planners insisted on vetting his remarks before he took the stage. Team Romney also reportedly wanted a full-throated Paul endorsement; Paul balked.

"It wouldn't be my speech," Paul told the New York Times this week. "That would undo everything I've done in the last 30 years. I don't fully endorse him for president."

His supporters are also furious about an attempt by the Romney campaign to change party rules that they claim will prevent grassroots challengers, like Paul, from taking a run at establishment candidates.

It's all made for a series of headaches for Romney, and an unusual state of affairs in American politics. Obama is currently running neck-and-neck with Romney — and even ahead of him in some public opinion polls.

That's a rarity for an incumbent considered weak on the economy during tough economic times and a high unemployment rate. Challengers have historically polled well ahead of incumbent presidents under such circumstances.

Republican officials were toiling to put the focus back on the economy on Tuesday following a barrage of negative attack ads by the Obama campaign about Romney's tax returns and his years at the helm of a private equity firm.

"We have a message for America: Elect Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan and they'll get America working again," Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, told cheering delegates as he addressed the convention.

"We must send America's comeback team to Washington."

Romney's campaign has been hoping for what's known as a "bounce" in the polls following the convention, particularly in crucial swing states like Florida, where the outcome of the presidential election will likely be decided.

Obama is currently slightly ahead of Romney in the Sunshine State, home to millions of senior citizens who are nervous about his running mate Paul Ryan's proposals to privatize Medicare, a cherished government program that provides health insurance to Americans over 65.