Tropical storm Isaac was barrelling toward the Gulf Coast city on Sunday, prompting organizers to essentially postpone the start of the convention until Tuesday, when Isaac was expected to have passed by Tampa. The event was supposed to begin Monday, but will only convene briefly then immediately recess until Tuesday afternoon
The unexpected force of nature has rattled Republican officials, who worry Isaac is distracting from an event aimed at highlighting party unity following a fractious primary season. The event would likely have to be cancelled outright if the storm strengthens into a hurricane and proves particularly deadly.
The irony of a potential hurricane wreaking havoc on the convention hasn't been lost on many pundits, especially since several high-profile conservatives, including Republican congresswoman Michele Bachmann, have blamed liberal policies over the years for similar "acts of God."
"By their own logic, Republicans and their conservative allies should be concerned that Isaac is a form of divine retribution," Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank wrote last week.
Indeed, the recent remarks from U.S. Senate candidate Todd Akin about women's bodies shutting down and preventing pregnancy in cases of "legitimate rape" have already exposed dangerous fault lines in the party's fragile coalition of disparate factions.
"This is a classic bullhorn lock between the social conservatives of the party and the big business, economy-focused Republicans, the ones who are really worried about taxes and deregulation and other economic matters," says Doug Brinkley, a historical author and history professor at Rice University in Houston.
"The money and the power is with the economic crowd, so it's long been a rough coalition, and it blew up with Akin's comments. They were so idiotic and egregious that it's almost like he's a plant by the Democratic party. They couldn't have scripted a better scenario to create acrimony in the House of Romney."
Republican moderates fretted 12 years ago when Karl Rove, George W. Bush's infamous strategist, embarked upon a mission to bring millions of non-voting Christian evangelicals back into the party fold after his boss won the contested 2000 election by the narrowest of margins.
Those moderates were nervous that the sheer numbers of evangelicals would force future presidential candidates to pander to them and consequently drive away crucial independent voters, who are largely socially progressive.
While the evangelicals share some beliefs with the anti-government, anti-taxation Tea Party adherents, many of whom are also socially conservative, they are viewed with distrust and often disdain by the well-heeled, pro-Wall Street crowd and young Republicans who are overwhelmingly fiscally conservative but socially moderate, particularly on same-sex marriage.
"This tremendous divide has been in place since 2000, but the party was able to paper over some of the more extreme ideologues involved in it," says Brian Vargus, a political consultant and retired politics professor in Indianapolis.
"It's now burst out into the open, to say the least, and it's certainly causing the party problems, problems that could definitely erupt on the convention floor."
The religious right has been passionately defending Akin in recent days, deriding Romney and Paul Ryan, his running mate, and several other high-profile Republicans who have essentially ordered Akin to drop out of the Senate race.
The Missouri race is crucial to Republican aspirations to win enough seats to seize control of the U.S. Senate, where Democrats currently enjoy a 53-47 seat majority. Some public opinion polls have Akin's Democratic opponent, Claire McCaskill, surging ahead since his remarks.
"You talk about a forcible situation, you talk about somebody being a victim of forcible assault, that would be Todd Akin," said Bryan Fischer, head of the American Family Association.
Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, a darling of religious conservatives, took a veiled shot at Romney, who was pro-choice less than a decade ago and is deeply distrusted by the religious right.
"Do we forgive and forget the verbal gaffes of Republicans who are 'conveniently pro-life' for political advantage, but crucify one who truly believes that every life is sacred?" Huckabee wrote in an email to supporters.
That dispatch should make for some awkward moments at the convention — Huckabee was given a marquee speaking slot on the opening night of the event; organizers were determining on Sunday where to squeeze him into a truncated schedule.
Gary DeMar of American Vision, an organization that promotes a "biblical world view," said efforts to force Akin out of the race by the Republican establishment have been positively liberal in nature.
"We expect leftists, liberals, and other miscreants to pounce opportunistically, to lie, cheat, and twist (all the while drooling) over a phrase like 'legitimate rape' when uttered by a strong conservative Christian politician. But should we expect the same from alleged conservatives?" he wrote on the organization's website.
"Yet this is exactly what we've seen from several prominent conservatives in the wake of a media gaffe."
Those dreaded liberals, on the other hand, have noted that Akin's views on abortion match Ryan's, who has co-sponsored or supported bills that state that life begins at fertilization and call for outlawing abortion even in cases of rape and incest. Ryan has since fallen in line with Romney's position on the issue, saying he's "comfortable" with legal abortion in cases of rape, incest and in situations where the mother's life is in danger.
The recently released 2012 party platform, meantime, calls for a ban on abortion, with no provision for exceptions in cases of rape and incest. It also calls for a legal recognition that human life begins at the moment of conception.
Cynics have suggested the platform was an attempt to appease the pro-life movement and silence the ongoing debate on the hot-button, divisive social issue as the convention gets under way.
"Romney has already disavowed a major portion of the platform, so that's pretty telling," says Vargus.
The last thing Romney wants, after all, is for abortion to become a major campaign issue, Vargus points out. The presidential hopeful, polling well behind Obama among women according to most public opinion surveys, has even been refusing to take questions on Akin.
Instead, he's been toiling for weeks to keep the focus of his campaign on the economy, where Obama is vulnerable.
The controlled nature of a political convention should finally give Romney and Ryan an opportunity to get back on message, says James Campbell, a political scientist at the University of Buffalo.
"The key for them at this convention is to emphasize their belief about how bad the economic record of the Obama administration has been and to make it clear they are offering common-sense economic plans that will get the country on the road to prosperity," he said.
"They have to argue forcefully that they have a good command of budget issues and management that the country needs at this point. If you look at this like a card game, the Republicans have been dealt a very strong hand on the economy."
No president in modern times has been re-elected with as weak an economic record as Obama has, Campbell points out, and some, in fact, have been voted out of office with stronger economic numbers.
"He's in bad shape on this front, and the convention will allow Romney and Ryan to emphasize that time and again."