Mitt Romney wants this week's abbreviated Republican National Convention to show his human side and ability to connect with U.S. voters, something he has had difficulty doing through a bitter campaign to oust President Barack Obama.
Tampa battened down the hatches against the approach of Tropical Storm Isaac as Romney spent the day at his lakeside vacation home in New Hampshire and practiced his Thursday night acceptance speech. As he did, two prominent Republicans on Sunday urged the party to adopt a more inclusive stance toward women and Hispanics, the nation's fastest growing minority.
Romney aides and party officials hurriedly rewrote the script for the convention, cut from four days to three because of the threat posed by Isaac. The storm is forecast to gain hurricane strength as it churns through the Gulf of Mexico but to pass well west of Tampa.
Romney said he was concerned for the safety of those who "are going to be affected" by the storm.
Republicans were hoping to use the convention as a show of unity after a brutal primary season from which Romney emerged voicing deeply conservative positions on key issues. Polls show Obama holding a small lead going into the convention.
Romney aides see the convention as an opportunity to cast the nominee as a determined leader with the know-how to fix the economy. They also want to introduce him as a family figure _ with Romney's wife Ann taking a prime speaking role Tuesday night _ to counter the image of him as a ruthless businessman as Democrats have sought to brand him.
However, party unity was brutally rocked in the final August days before the convention by the words of one of their Senate candidates about rape and abortion. The incendiary comment left Romney unable to sharpen the campaign focus on the weak economy and 8.3 percent national unemployment.
Rep. Todd Akin, the Republican candidate for a Senate seat from Missouri, unleashed his own political storm with remarks that claimed women's bodies have ways of avoiding pregnancy from a "legitimate" rape. He was defending his stance that abortion should not be available even to victims of rape or incest.
Romney and other party leaders criticized those statements and urged Akin to drop out of the Senate race. Akin, a favorite of Christian conservatives, apologized for his remarks, but has refused to step aside.
Democrats jumped on those remarks as further proof of their contention that the Republicans were waging a "war on women."
Not fair, Romney said in a Fox News interview broadcast Sunday.
"It really is sad, isn't it, with all the issues that America faces for the Obama campaign to continue to stoop to such a low level," Romney said, as he claimed the Obama campaign had sunk to a sad new low in the bitter election race. Romney conceded, however, that the controversy over Akin's remarks "hurts our party."
Obama hasn't explicitly linked Romney to Akin, but he said in an interview with The Associated Press that his opponent has locked himself into "extreme positions" on economic and social issues and would surely impose them if elected president.
Democrats have latched onto the controversy, noting not only what Akin said but also his opposition to abortion in all cases, a position held by many Republicans, including Romney's vice presidential pick, Rep. Paul Ryan.
Obama holds a significant lead among women voters as he does with Hispanics, who will be crucial to the outcome in key states that may decide the outcome of the Nov. 6 election.
Romney is struggling with the Hispanic vote, given his backing for the party's harsh position on dealing with illegal immigrants. He suggested in primary debates that those here illegally would find, under a Romney presidency, conditions that would cause them to "self-deport." The implication was that a Romney government would make it so difficult for illegal immigrants to find work that they would voluntarily return to their homelands.
Jeb Bush, the ex-Florida governor and brother of former President George W. Bush, urged his party to adopt "a better tone" toward Hispanics.
"You can't ask people to join your cause and then send a signal that `you're really not wanted.' It just doesn't work," he said in a CNN interview.
John McCain, who lost the 2008 presidential election to Obama, said Republicans must do a better job selling their economic message to both Hispanics and women.
McCain told NBC television that Romney has been at a disadvantage in the campaign so far because of Obama's aggressive ad campaign that suggests Romney is out of touch with the average voter. McCain said Romney must convince women and Hispanic voters that his ability to create jobs and improve the economy is "more important than other issues."
Obama spent the weekend at the Camp David presidential retreat in the Maryland mountains north of Washington, gearing up for campaigning this week on college campuses across Iowa, Colorado and Virginia _ all so-called swing states where polls show voters are not solidly in the camp of one candidate or the other.
The U.S. president is not chosen according to the nationwide popular vote but in state-by-state contests. Of the 50 states, about 43 are already viewed as settled upon Romney or Obama, meaning the outcome in seven states _ including those Obama visits this week _ likely will decide which man sits in the White House for the next four years.
The revised convention schedule included a symbolic 10-minute session on Monday in a nearly empty hall, during which officials intend to launch a debt clock set to zero to show how much the government will borrow during the convention week.
Officials did not rule out further changes because of the weather, and sidestepped when asked what might happen if, as seemed possible, the storm made landfall in the New Orleans area on the seventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. That storm killed 1,800 people and devastated the city.
Despite concerns about the weather, a mammoth pre-convention celebration went on as planned Sunday night, attended by thousands of delegates and others who flocked to the Rays major league baseball stadium turned into a party venue in nearby St. Petersburg.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said Romney's nomination would take place on Tuesday, as would approval of a conservative party platform.
Obama has dispatched the Federal Emergency Management Agency to establish a command center and move more resources into the state.
The streets around the convention hall were crowded with police, National Guard and other security officials.
A few hundred protesters gathered in a park about a half-mile (800 meters) from the convention vowed to make their point regardless of Isaac.
Associated Press writers Steven R. Hurst, Brian Bakst, Philip Elliott, Steve Peoples and Ken Thomas contributed to this report.