TAMPA , FLA.— As powerful tropical storm Isaac churned through the Gulf of Mexico, Republicans opened their abbreviated nominating convention on Monday with a knock at President Barack Obama's record on spending and a Hollywood-style video message from Mitt Romney.
"In the campaign to come, the American ideals of economic freedom and opportunity need a clear and unapologetic defense, and I intend to make it because I have lived it," the former Massachusetts governor vowed against a swelling musical score and images of farms, New York City, a rancher with cattle, children going to school and grinning veterans.
"Though each of us comes from very different backgrounds, though each of us has chosen to walk a different path in life, we are united by one great overwhelming passion: We love America. We believe in America," he said.
"I'm Mitt Romney, I believe in America, and I'm running for president of the United States," he said.
Moments earlier, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus had presided over perhaps the shortest convention session in history—scarcely 33 seconds, the result of a schedule shortened amid concerns Isaac could have hit Tampa.
"It is my privilege to proclaim the 2012 Republican National Convention in session and called to order," he said, garnering a standing ovation from the assembled delegates. The convention will resume Tuesday, a session anchored on Ann Romney's evening speech.
Priebus drew the delegates' attention to a national debt clock counting up from zero the moment his gavel first came down. The clock, labeled "Debt From Convention Start," aimed to highlight what Priebus dubbed "the unprecedented fiscal recklessness of the Obama administration."
Romney has accused Obama of failing to stem the tide of red ink—and of feeding it with his 2009 stimulus package. The president has hit back that many of the main drivers of the debt—the global economic collapse of 2007-2008, a GOP-crafted expansion of health care benefits, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Bush-era tax cuts—predated his arrival in office. The national debt stands at about $15.9 trillion compared to $10.6 trillion when Obama entered the White House.
The convention opened with Romney and Obama in a dead heat—much as the race has been for months. Top Obama campaign aides predicted last week that the contest might swing one way or another after the two parties' conventions but would ultimately settle back into what both sides say will be a close race.
Still, both parties agreed that the gathering in Tampa could play a pivotal role in introducing Romney to voters who have not yet tuned in to the election. It could make him more appealing to voters unhappy with Obama but unsure about the former Massachusetts governor.
Republicans had announced Sunday that they were essentially scrapping the first session of the four-day affair, trimming their sails as Isaac churned its way across the Gulf of Mexico roughly along the path of Hurricane Katrina. The botched government response to that devastating and deadly storm dealt a political body blow to then-President George W. Bush's image.
"People around here don't seem to have their spirits dampened," said Cindy Graves, a delegate from Florida. Asked whether it might look bad if Isaac slammed the Gulf Coast with a political party roaring in Tampa, Graves replied: "I mean, it's hurricane season. People get on with their lives."
In Tampa itself, wind gusts bent trees and intermittent rain soaked the city overnight. But while the morning brought overcast skies and the occasional drizzle, it was clear that the storm would give the convention a miss. At 10 a.m., the National Hurricane Center formally discontinued the tropical storm warning affecting Tampa.
Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and first lady Michelle Obama planned a week of campaigning—but that, too, could turn on Isaac. "Obviously we are continuing to closely monitor the storm's developments and will make additional decisions about our plans as needed," an Obama campaign official said by email. Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan was campaigning in his home state of Wisconsin.
"Everybody here's got one eye on the storm," former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour told reporters. "Right now we're praying for the best and preparing for the worst."
But Barbour dismissed the notion that the storm would, or should, affect the convention, which he described as Romney's best chance to combat Democratic descriptions of him as an out-of-touch "plutocrat" married to a "known equestrian"—a joking reference to Ann Romney's fondness for dressage, a kind of horseback riding, which helps her cope with her multiple sclerosis.
Jon Burgin, a Ron Paul-supporting alternate delegate from Texas, said he was "kind of appreciative of the delay" forced by the storm. Burgin and other Paul supporters have been working on a plan to mutiny against Republican establishment-driven changes meant to sideline the veteran representative from the Lone Star state.
"I guess [the storm] is kind of an act of God. It's helping us save our party," said Burgin, who was wearing a cowboy hat with a glowing "pro-life" decal on top.
Liz Goodwin contributed reporting from the convention floor.