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TAMPA – Republicans today will open a storm-shortened national convention with the theme “A Better Future,” and while that slogan refers to their envisioned America under a President Mitt Romney, it could also be used to describe the GOP itself.
Delegates and other leading Republicans are downright giddy about the speaking program at the three-day affair, which is dotted with rising GOP stars that many envision as possible future candidates for president or vice president – in 2016 if Romney loses, 2020 if he wins.
Some are dynamic speakers, like tonight’s keynote speaker, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who will introduce Romney on Thursday. Others are women, such as Govs. Nikki Haley of South Carolina and Susana Martinez of New Mexico, who, party activists said, could one day bridge the “gender gap” that shows women voters favoring Democrats.
In fact, some Republicans talk with more excitement about speakers such as Christie than they do about Romney.
Asked if some speakers might outshine the party’s presidential nominee, former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour said: “Chris Christie, he’ll peel the paint off the walls. You can get ready for that. He’s going to be stupendous.”
Barbour, a former Republican National Committee chairman, then quickly added: “The American people want to see and get to know Mitt Romney. And there is no way that anybody is going to be a bigger event than that. … I don’t think anyone’s worried about that.”
Republicans will nominate Romney in a roll call this evening, and the former Massachusetts governor will accept the nomination in a speech Thursday night.
Between now and then, though, the GOP has laid out convention plans that showcase what Barbour called a very deep bench.
“We have a lot of talent,” Barbour said. “We have 29 governors, a bunch of them potential stars.”
On a day when the Tampa area experienced only a few intense showers as Tropical Storm Isaac passed by to the west, Republicans spent Monday attending parties and events and speculating on what the convention’s highlights will be.
The storm forced minor additional changes in the schedule, as Govs. Rick Scott of Florida and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana canceled their convention appearances to focus on storm preparation.
Aides to Romney left open the possibility of altering the schedule further if Isaac were to devastate the Gulf Coast – a possibility Republicans dreaded both for the human impact of the storm and the political impact of shifting media attention away from their gathering.
For his part, Romney told a pool reporter in New Hampshire: “Our thoughts are with the people that are in the storm’s path and [we] hope that they’re spared any major destruction.”
For now, the convention will proceed, having lost only one of the speakers many Republicans name as a potential national candidate: Jindal. But there are many others – including the vice presidential nominee, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin – who will speak Wednesday.
Others who get mentioned as future national candidates include Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia, who is broadly popular in his home state, and Gov. Brian Sandoval of Nevada, who is seen, as are Rubio and Martinez, as candidates who could appeal to the nation’s growing Hispanic population. McDonnell and Sandoval will speak tonight, while Martinez will speak Wednesday.
The Erie County Republican chairman, Nicholas A. Langworthy, said he was looking forward to several of the speakers.
He said Christie is a Republican who has and will appeal to Northeast voters like those in Erie County, through a “tell it like it is” style reminiscent of late Buffalo Mayor James D. Griffin.
“He’s not your typical politician,” said Langworthy, himself the youngest chairman of a major party organization in the state. “He lays it on the line.”
In addition, Ryan’s speech accepting the vice presidential nomination will garner “incredible ratings,” Langworthy predicted.
“He has never had such an audience, and how bright this guy is will really open some eyes,” he said.
Still, Langworthy insisted that the GOP’s young stars would not steal the show from Romney, who, polls show, has struggled to connect with voters. Just this week, a Washington Post/ABC News poll found that Romney had a statistically insignificant 1 point lead over Obama – but that by a 61 to 27 percent margin, voters found Obama more likable.
“We will use these surrogates and use them well” to promote Romney’s message, Langworthy predicted.
That poll also highlighted the persistent gender gap. Women favored Obama by six percentage points, the poll said, while men preferred Romney by a similar margin.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, noted that the gender gap has persisted for years but that Romney’s economic message should lead women to vote for him.
State Sen. Catharine Young, R-Olean, agreed.
“Gov. Romney’s message will be about what women want: economic security,” she said. “They want it for themselves, for their family, and job opportunities for their children.”
As for the supposed Republican “war on women” claimed by some Democrats – especially after Rep. Todd Akin, the GOP Senate candidate in Missouri, coined the term “legitimate rape” – Young finds the argument “contrived and fabricated.”
Romney’s wife, Ann, will speak at the convention tonight, and Young said she is the ideal speaker to counter that claim.
“I admire her immensely,” the senator said. “She has overcome many obstacles in her life and raised five sons. She really is a role model.”
Ann Romney is just one of several prominent women who will speak at the convention.
Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who denies any political ambitions, will speak Wednesday. Haley, the South Carolina governor who could become the first Indian-American on a presidential ticket, speaks tonight, as does Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, another Republican woman seen by many as harboring national ambitions.
“It shows you the bench strength this party has right now,” Langworthy said.
At the same time, Isaac was not the only potential distraction at the convention.
The streets of Tampa teem with police officers on bikes, on foot and in vehicles. And that police presence, along with the rain, appears to have minimized the protests that were expected.
Only one protester, a man who refused to remove his bandanna despite police orders, was arrested Monday, when a protest that aimed to draw 5,000 attracted only a few hundred.
Meanwhile, an old GOP renegade – Rep. Ron Paul of Texas – threatened to cause a bigger distraction, promising to fight against a set of rules that the Romney team has tried to push that would make it more difficult for insurgent presidential candidates to make a go of it. A floor fight about those rules could take place this afternoon.
Top Republicans said, though, that no such distractions will get in the way of the bottom-line message that Republicans hope to deliver.
“You’re always going to have a lot of issues and distractions, but this election is going to be about the economy and jobs,” Boehner said.

News wire services contributed to this article.
email: jzremski@buffnews.com and rmccarthy@buffnews.com