U.S. presidential challenger Mitt Romney and the Republicans staged a remarkably subdued opening to their national convention Monday in the midst of a turbulent election year, mindful about uncorking a glittery political celebration as Tropical Storm Isaac surged toward New Orleans as a potential hurricane.
"Our thoughts are with the people that are in the storm's path and hope that they're spared any major destruction," Romney said, as party leaders wondered how the storm, on course to bring back memories of the devastating Hurricane Katrina seven year ago, would develop.
Monday's session to formally nominate the former Massachusetts governor as the party's challenger to President Barack Obama was gaveled into session for just a few minutes before thousands of empty seats, a symbolic opening before speeches start Tuesday.
The convention is aimed at repairing party unity after a bruising primary season and recharging the campaign before the Nov. 6 election. Polls show Obama holding a small lead in a race dominated by concerns about the still-struggling economy.
Romney's campaign has been looking forward to introducing their candidate to national television viewers with high-profile speeches by him, running mate Paul Ryan and party leaders in an attempt to show Romney as both a determined leader and a family figure. They hope to counter Democrats' attempts to brand him as a ruthless titan of the business world.
But the convention's script was being hurriedly reshaped as Tropical Storm Isaac threatened to come ashore as a hurricane almost seven years to the day after Katrina killed 1,800 and led to criticism of Republican President George W. Bush's response.
Romney suggested there were no thoughts of canceling the event. "We've got a great convention ahead," he said at his summer home in New Hampshire.
The roll call of state delegations affirming Romney as the party's nominee now is to unfold Tuesday. Ryan gets the prime-time spotlight Wednesday, and Romney closes out the spectacle Thursday night.
But the storm risked the juxtaposition of Republicans partying as a potential hurricane churned toward New Orleans. "Obviously we want to pray for anyone that's in the pathway of this storm," Party Chairman Reince Priebus said Monday on NBC's "Today" show.
Priebus opened the convention, citing rules requiring a 2 p.m. Monday start, and then immediately recessed the session. It took less than two minutes.
Tampa, the site of this year's convention, early on had been seen as possibly being in the storm's direct path, but Isaac has taken a more western course.
The storm was a complication, at best, for a party determined to cast the close election as a referendum on Obama's economic stewardship and Romney as the best hope for jobs and prosperity. Inside the party, the convention offers Romney the chance to win over social conservatives in the party's base who remain wary of him because of his past support for abortion rights and gun control.
Romney may have added to concerns Monday when said in a CBS interview that he opposes abortions except "in the case of rape and incest, and the health and life of the mother."
That affirmed his difference of opinion on the subject with his own convention platform, which opposes all abortions. There was no immediate reaction from delegates, who were looking forward to the convention as a final push toward the election.
"We have to nominate a candidate for president. Our mission is to save America from becoming a socialistic state," said Gary Hawkins, one of the delegates from Mississippi.
The latest Associated Press-GfK poll puts the contest at 47 percent for Obama to 46 percent for Romney among registered voters.
This year, the tight election is coming down to several battleground states whose residents can't be counted on to reliably vote for one party or another: Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, New Hampshire, Ohio, Iowa, Colorado and Nevada. The U.S. president is not chosen according to the nationwide popular vote but in state-by-state contests. Obama and Romney have been campaigning in those states over and over in recent weeks.
A far-reaching challenge for the Republicans this week will be appealing to people outside its usual base and winning national elections in 2016 and beyond. While the U.S. minority populations, especially Hispanic, keep growing rapidly, the Republican Party keeps relying heavily on white voters. Ninety percent of Republican John McCain's presidential vote in 2008 came from whites, as did 91 percent of George W. Bush's vote in 2000. But whites are steadily shrinking as a share of the U.S. population, accounting for 69 percent in 2000, and 64 percent in 2010.
The Republicans are seeking to hold tight to the economy as the top issue. At the symbolic 10-minute opening session of the Republican gathering Monday, party officials launched a debt clock to show how much the government will borrow during the convention week alone. The party hammers Obama for running up government debt to record levels.
Romney says he would reduce the deficit by capping federal spending _ now at 23.5 percent of the U.S. economy _ at 20 percent by the end of his first term in January 2017. But he also wants to boost defense spending. So reductions could mean slashing health care for the poor and disabled and huge cuts to programs like homeland security, air traffic control and law enforcement. Throughout nearly a year of campaigning, Romney has avoided saying what he'd cut.
Outside the convention, the storm was having an effect on protesters as well. Just around 200 of the 5,000 people expected marched Monday to criticize Republicans' economic and social policies, and others gathered at an encampment called "Romneyville." One protester was arrested..
Hundreds of police officers and heavily armed members of the Florida National Guard patrolled the streets. The protesters were required to conduct their rallies and parades in designated areas and along specified routes, none closer than a few blocks from where Republicans would be gathering.
"They've militarized Tampa. The chilling effect has succeeded," said one protester, Cara Jennings.
Associated Press writers David Espo, Steven R. Hurst, Donna Cassata, Calvin Woodward, Charles Babington, Brian Bakst, Philip Elliott, Steve Peoples and Ken Thomas contributed to this report.