CLEARWATER, Fla. – Republican convention delegates from New York hunkered down at a beachfront hotel Sunday – or headed off to party in the face of an approaching tropical storm – as GOP leaders scrambled to rearrange a national convention in Tampa where today’s activities were canceled because of the looming bad weather.
Delegations, including New York’s, are staying on the coast 25 miles from the convention hall in this Gulf beach community; they figured into the calculations of party leaders who postponed the start of all the speechifying till Tuesday.
Officials feared that if Tropical Storm Isaac were to strike the region, delegations headquartered on the west side of Tampa Bay would be unable to traverse the causeway that ferries traffic between Clearwater and Tampa only a few feet above bay waters, said Anthony J. Casale, the former Cooperstown assemblyman who now serves as chief of staff to state GOP Chairman Edward F. Cox.
“The problem on the causeways is that you can get a [storm] surge from both sides,” Casale told reporters at an afternoon briefing. “They don’t want you on the bridges – especially buses.”
While Isaac was tracking farther west than expected, the Tampa region remained under a tropical storm warning Sunday night. The National Weather Service put the chance of tropical storm conditions here at 39 percent, down sharply from earlier in the day, but it still predicted heavy rain and 40-mph wind gusts thanks to Isaac.
Even as thunderstorms started drenching Clearwater on Sunday afternoon, though, some members of the New York delegation poured onto buses in the evening for the 20-mile drive to Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, where 20,000 guests were expected for a “Welcome Event” featuring cocktails and what organizers billed as a “Super Bowl-style halftime show.”
“It doesn’t dampen our enthusiasm at all,” Patty Hohmann, a GOP delegate from Dutchess County, said of the storm.
Gina DiGrandi, another delegate from Dutchess County and a 2006 graduate of the University at Buffalo, agreed.
“I think I’m still going to have a good time,” she said.
Some unofficial convention events remained set to continue as planned for today, and GOP Chairman Reince Priebus will gavel the convention open at the Tampa Bay Times Forum but then quickly close the gathering until Tuesday.
The roll call that will make former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney the GOP nominee, originally scheduled for today, will take place Tuesday, said Russ Schriefer, a Romney adviser.
And all the major speakers from what would have been today’s program have been moved into the convention’s three remaining prime-time sessions. For example, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley will now speak Tuesday, while former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky have been moved to Wednesday.
The convention’s evening sessions now will begin at 7 rather than 8, as had been scheduled. But the 10 to 11 p.m. hour of the convention – the only hour the major television networks are carrying – will see no schedule changes,
With the convention compressed into three days, some speakers are being asked to trim their speeches, and other, less prominent speakers were cut from the program, Schriefer said.
The central theme of each session will remain as planned, he said. Tuesday’s theme will be “We Built It,” Wednesday’s will be “We Can Change It,” and Thursday’s will be “We Believe in America.”
“I believe, and I think we all believe here, that the Monday message of ‘We Can Do Better’ can easily be put into the entire program, on each day,” Schriefer said.
Then again, Schriefer also left room for possible changes in the schedule.
Schriefer also left open the possibility of a Friday convention session if weather were to wreak further havoc with the schedule.
The cancellation of today’s session was by no means unprecedented. Republican officials had to truncate their quadrennial meeting in 2008 in St. Paul, Minn., because of Hurricane Gustav, even though that storm was homing in on the Gulf Coast thousands of miles away.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona, that year’s nominee, said it would be inappropriate for delegates to be seen as partying when other Americans were in peril from the storm.
But others said eliminating the first day of the meeting also allowed McCain to distance himself from then-President George W. Bush, who was slated to speak that day and who was widely criticized for his administration’s handling of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Despite increasingly cloudy skies Sunday afternoon, the protests that are expected daily began to take shape. About 200 people gathered in Gaslight Park in downtown Tampa for an Occupy Movement protest against the nation’s economic policies.
Perched on the outskirts of the square was a giant ice sculpture spelling out the words “middle class,” melting away in the Florida heat.
“These businesses have put corporate greed over everything else,” Cheryl Landecker, a protester from Illinois, told the Associated Press.
With larger demonstrations expected, much of downtown Tampa is cordoned off by hundreds of security fences, all designed to keep protesters away from the Tampa Bay Times Forum, where Romney will deliver his acceptance speech Thursday. Hundreds of sheriff’s deputies and state troopers clad in ubiquitous tan fatigues are gathered throughout downtown keeping an eye on everyone and everything.
“They’re OK with me as long as they respect the rights of others,” said one state trooper. “If they don’t, the tan team rolls.”
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