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Politics | Republicans in Tampa battle storms during their crucial convention week

TAMPA, Fla.-The media guide for journalists covering the Republican National Convention (RNC) offers a list of "things you might not know about Tampa Bay." The last item declares: "Tampa Bay boasts some of the nicest weather in the country."

It's not hard to see the irony. Glance out the window this morning, and the scene is remarkably different than the beautiful sunsets that streaked across Tampa Bay this weekend, casting a warm glow over a city that's home to nearly 3 million residents.

This morning, the warm glow has yielded to a deluge of rain and strong wind, courtesy of a tropical storm that threatens to make landfall along the Gulf Coast on Tuesday as a Category 2 hurricane.

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Forecasters said Tropical Storm Isaac is gaining strength as it whips past the Florida Keys, and could follow a track that puts New Orleans in the center of danger. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal has declared a state of emergency and ordered voluntary evacuations of more than 12 parishes.

Here in Tampa, the threat looks less severe, though driving rain and heavy wind makes the bay area a potentially dangerous spot. Florida Gov. Rick Scott abandoned his part in convention events through Tuesday to tend to the disaster bearing down on his state, and forecasters warned that the storm surge in Tampa Bay could reach 4 feet.

For today, the mixture of torrential rain and bad news promises to keep inside many of the estimated 50,000 people descending on Tampa for the GOP's 40th convention. For delegates and others hunkering down in nearby towns across the bay's waters, the low bridges could close temporarily into the downtown area that's hosting the convention if a storm surge grows serious.

Republicans canceled the first day of convention proceedings and vowed to reconvene on Tuesday. At 2 p.m. today, GOP chairman Reince Priebus plans to strike the gavel to officially open the convention in the Tampa Bay Times Forum-the arena hosting the main events. He'll close the proceedings less than five minutes later and hope that Isaac will allow the meetings to continue tomorrow.

It's a rough start to an important week for Republicans. Exactly 71 days from now, voters are set to cast ballots in a presidential election that's locked in a dead heat, according to pollsters.

As Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney looked to gain traction with his vice presidential pick of fiscal hawk Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., another storm swirled around the party: A firestorm erupted last week when U.S. Senate candidate Todd Akin of Missouri used the phrase "legitimate rape" during a discussion of whether abortion should be legal in the case of rape.

Akin repeatedly apologized for his word choice, but Republican leaders worried that the backlash jeopardized his race against Democratic incumbent Claire McCaskill-and possibly a chance for the GOP to control the Senate. (Akin has said he'll stay in the race, and has received support from some Christian and conservative leaders-see "Akin advocates," by Warren Cole Smith, Aug. 24.)

President Barack Obama used the moment to call Romney "extreme"-though Romney favors allowing abortion in the case of rape-and Democrats hoped to use the controversy to attract even more women supporters.

Republicans had hoped to start strong in Tampa by refocusing the discourse on the struggling economy-a potent message in a state with one of the highest foreclosure rates in the country and an unemployment rate of 8.8 percent.

Despite Issac's havoc, Republicans could still seize the week with strong speeches by party favorites like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul-son of Texas congressman and GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul. (Indeed, Ron Paul's supporters held a two-day festival this weekend in Tampa to celebrate the candidate's ideas.)

Expect Republicans to seek a crucial balance in their message this week: motivating their conservative base to work hard for the next 70 days, while reaching out to independent voters who could end up deciding the election.

For today, motivated conservatives-and hardcore opponents-may make up the bulk of those braving the streets of Tampa. RNC protesters said that a mile-long march to the Tampa Bay Times Forum arena would continue as scheduled, despite the rain. As of yesterday, protests were tame affairs, with far thinner crowds than expected.

So far, some of the most visible messages have come from billboards blanketing the Tampa region. On one street near the downtown area, the conservative Media Research Center bought billboard space declaring: "Don't believe the liberal media." Across the street, the Freedom from Religion Foundation sported a billboard with a pointing Uncle Sam and the message "God fixation won't fix this nation."

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