INTERNATIONAL. The Republican convention opened with a whimper not a bang on Monday as Tropical Storm Isaac reduced the launch of Mitt Romney's party coronation to a symbolic session lasting less than two minutes.
It was supposed to be a raucous beginning to four days of carefully choreographed political theater. Instead, Isaac hogged the spotlight as it neared hurricane strength over the Gulf of Mexico and took aim at New Orleans.
Republican National Committee chairman Reince Preibus declared a recess to a mostly empty hall almost before proceedings had begun, saying the thoughts and prayers of all must first and foremost be with the people of the Gulf coast.
The original script was for thousands of jubilant delegates to formally nominate Romney to take on President Barack Obama in the November 6 election, launching a succession of well-honed speeches by party luminaries.
That roll call will now take place on Tuesday afternoon as the convention in Tampa, Florida gets under way for real.
Lying neck-and-neck with Obama in the polls 10 weeks before election day, Romney hopes to use the convention to recast his image after months of damaging White House attacks on his tax secrecy and business record.
Many US voters don't really tune in until the convention season starts -- Obama and the Democrats hold their's next week in Charlotte, North Carolina -- so Tampa provides Romney with a golden opportunity to reset the narrative.
The run-up to the convention was marred by incendiary remarks from Todd Akin, a Republican congressman seeking a Senate seat in Missouri who suggested women's bodies spontaneously prevent pregnancy after a "legitimate rape."
The Romney camp is thus anxious to get the campaign back on message, billing the former Massachusetts governor as a successful businessman with the acumen to turn around the flagging US economy and get the country back on track.
A convention speech on Tuesday by Romney's wife Ann will highlight his human side, while former Olympians take to the floor on Thursday to remind Americans that he saved the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics from bankruptcy.
But the storm presents the candidate with the specter of a natural disaster casting a pall over his big moment, and he must tread a fine line between driving his political ambitions and showing sensitivity to those in harm's way.
"Our thoughts are with the people that are in the storm's path and (we) hope that they're spared any major destruction," Romney told reporters at his New Hampshire home, as he prepped for Thursday's primetime acceptance speech.
The fate of the convention lay in Isaac's hands as it barreled towards Louisiana. It was expected to make landfall as a category one hurricane late Tuesday or early Wednesday, right on the eve of Romney's address.
"The hurricane presents a tough situation," said Diane Heith, associate professor of politics at Saint Johns University in New York.
"In purely political terms, there is a lot competing for news attention, the convention versus this hurricane.
"The more significant the weather event, the harder it will be for Romney to get out the message the Republican party planned."
Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, who was due to speak at the convention, was forced to stay home and prepare for disaster, while vice presidential pick Paul Ryan delayed his arrival in Tampa until Tuesday because of the storm.
Romney aides promised the show would go on as they frantically repackaged four days of events into three.
Party officials stressed that the main night-time speaking slots on Tuesday and Wednesday, culminating in Romney's acceptance speech on Thursday after an introduction by rising Hispanic star Marco Rubio, remained unchanged.
Events prompted ironic jibes that God must be a Democrat as they echo a similar scenario in 2008, when Republicans canceled nearly all of the first day of their convention in Saint Paul, Minnesota due to Hurricane Gustav.
Jeb Bush, then Florida governor, was also forced to stay in his home state in 2004 to deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Charley instead of addressing the New York convention to re-nominate his brother, president George W. Bush.
Forecasts put Isaac on a direct path for New Orleans, seven years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city and killed 1,800 people in the country's worst natural disaster in living memory.
National polls have shown a neck-and-neck race between Romney and Obama for weeks. A Washington Post and ABC News poll out Monday showed the challenger one point ahead, 47 percent to 46 percent.
Other surveys show Obama with crucial leads in some of the most important swing states that could decide the election.