By Tom Cohen
TAMPA, Florida (CNN) — A quest started five years ago reaches a major milestone Tuesday when Mitt Romney is formally nominated as the Republican presidential candidate to face President Barack Obama in November.
The roll call to nominate Romney highlights a packed first day of full proceedings at the storm-shortened Republican National Convention.
Romney and running mate Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin originally were supposed to be nominated Monday, but organizers delayed the agenda for 24 hours because of the threat from Tropical Storm Isaac.
Instead, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus gaveled open the convention on Monday afternoon and immediately put it in recess until Tuesday.
Organizers acknowledged Monday they were keeping a nervous eye on the storm projected to make landfall as a hurricane in Louisiana early Wednesday, the seven-year anniversary of when devastating Hurricane Katrina hit the state.
Their concern is the perception of a celebratory convention atmosphere with colorful balloons and soaring rhetoric as a hurricane slams into the Gulf Coast, evoking memories of the havoc caused by Katrina and the ensuing criticism of the Republican administration’s response.
“Obviously, our first concern is for the people who are in the path of the storm,” Romney campaign strategist Russ Schriefer said Monday, describing “a wait-and-see attitude to see what happens with the storm.”
However, Romney and Republicans are reluctant to lose any more of their best opportunity to define the candidate for the American people with less than three months until the election.
Along with nominating their standard-bearers, the 2,200-plus delegates on Tuesday will vote on a conservative party platform and hear speeches from GOP figures including Romney’s wife, Ann, as well as the keynote address by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
For Romney, 65, the nomination puts him one step from the goal he first sought in 2007 by running for president after serving as a Republican governor for four years in traditionally Democratic Massachusetts.
The multimillionaire businessman lost to veteran Sen. John McCain in the Republican primary campaign in 2008, then spent the following two years preparing for another try. He will close this week’s convention by accepting the nomination in a speech Thursday night.
A thematic scheme for the convention called for Monday’s original opening day to focus on framing Obama’s leadership as a failure in terms of achievement, direction and substance.
During his brief time at the podium, Priebus pointed out a digital clock in the convention hall tabulating the amount of additional national debt accrued during the proceedings.
“We also wanted to draw your attention to the unprecedented fiscal recklessness of the Obama administration,” he told the hundreds of delegates and journalists present.
Schriefer said a goal of the convention is to “define what President Obama has done over the last four years, how and why he’s failed, and why his leadership has really failed the American people.”
Romney has shown no inclination to further delay the proceedings.
“Our sons are already in Tampa and they say it’s terrific there, a lot of great friends,” he told reporters in a brief exchange Monday, adding: “We’re looking forward to a great convention.”
Delegates who found themselves with an open day attended state meetings and talked about travel challenges getting to Tampa, as well as packing for a possible hurricane.
“I packed a flashlight! Never done that before,” Cyndy Aafedt of North Dakota told CNN. “I even went and bought batteries before I came.”
So far, the biggest casualty of the shortened schedule has been a planned appearance by Donald Trump. The real estate mogul and outspoken conservative was going to take part on Monday, but has scheduling conflicts the rest of the week, Schriefer said.
He added it was still possible for Trump to show up before the convention ends Thursday night.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, considered a rising conservative star in the Republican Party, also will not attend because of the storm bearing down on his state. Members of the Louisiana delegation in Tampa sounded torn over being away from loved ones under possible threat.
“I think that for Louisiana people, we know that the political part of it is important, what we’re here for, but it is hard to celebrate in some ways when you have your heart in a different place,” delegate Adonica Duggen said.
A more reclusive Republican backer, Nevada billionaire Sheldon Adelson, is expected to attend the convention, a source with knowledge of the plan told CNN. Adelson and his wife, Miriam, have given at least $36 million to various organizations and candidates this campaign season, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks the influence of money in politics.
The casino magnate who is one of the nation’s richest men has told friends he is willing to spend up to $100 million this election season to make sure a Republican is elected to the White House and to support GOP congressional candidates.
Such unlimited backing from private and corporate donors has helped Romney and Republicans gain a big fundraising advantage over Obama and Democrats.
In a new ad on Monday, the liberal MoveOn.org’s political wing attacked Romney for what the group claims is his focus on the rich. The 30-second spot, titled “Stepping on the Middle Class,” features Romney and Ryan look-alikes stepping on people dressed as typical middle class Americans — fire fighters, students, seniors and children — as they walk across the convention floor to accept the GOP nomination.
The latest CNN/ORC International poll indicates a dead heat between Romney and Obama, with new numbers released Sunday showing that 53% of likely voters believe Obama is more in touch with their needs compared to 39% for Romney.
Obama leads by an equal margin when it comes to being in touch with the middle class, and six in 10 say Obama is in touch with the problems facing women today, with just over three in 10 feeling the same way about Romney.
Romney has a 48%-44% margin over Obama on managing the government effectively and a six-point advantage on having a clear plan for fixing the nation’s problems. Both are within the survey’s margin of error.
“The challenge facing Romney at the GOP convention is to build on those managerial strengths while at the same trying to convince average Americans that he is in touch with their problems. Obama’s personal characteristics, for the moment, outshine Romney’s,” said CNN Polling Director Keating Holland.
On specific issues, the poll results show a similar dynamic — Obama is generally ahead on foreign policy and social issues while Romney is generally preferred on economic issues.
Another new poll released Monday showed Romney and Obama neck-and-neck in Florida, a battleground state, and North Carolina, where the Democratic convention will take place next week.
The CNN/Time Magazine/ORC poll had both races statistically even, with Obama’s 50%-46% advantage in Florida and Romney’s 48%-47% lead in North Carolina both within the margin of error.
Republicans say the convention must focus on Romney’s character and show how he can lead the nation to economic prosperity, which is the top issue with voters.
“It’s the vision of Mitt Romney versus the record of Barack Obama, and facts just are stubborn things,” Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell told ABC on Sunday, adding that “the middle class is hurting” and people want “results, not rhetoric.”
The Obama campaign, anticipating the Romney branding effort by Republicans, released a movie trailer-style video Sunday that previewed a “do-over” moment for Romney.
In a statement accompanying the video, the Obama campaign said it is “presenting Americans with an epic cinematic preview of Mitt Romney’s ‘convention reinvention’ — the Do-Over moment that voters have grown to expect — because they’ve seen this movie before.”
Responding to the video, Romney’s campaign said Sunday the president was relying on “negative attacks” as a way to distract from his own record.
However, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa told ABC that Romney is vulnerable to being portrayed as a political opportunist because of the right-wing positions he adopted during the rugged primary campaign against conservatives such as Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich.
“I suspect that they are not going to be able to Etch A Sketch their way out of this campaign,” Villaraigosa, a Democrat, told CNN with a reference to a Romney aide’s comment earlier this year about resetting the campaign message. “They’re not going to be able to put away all the things they said in the primary and all the things they have in their platform right now.”
The GOP platform contains traditional conservative planks including support for a “human life amendment” that specifies no exceptions to a ban on abortion.
That runs counter to overall public opinion in America, especially among women — a demographic that polls show favoring Obama far more than Romney at this point.
Last week, controversial comments by conservative Republican Rep. Todd Akin of Missouri ignited a political firestorm about rape and abortion as the Romney team sought to build momentum up to the convention.
Akin, who won Missouri’s Republican Senate primary to challenge Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill in November, told an interviewer that women have an undefined biological response to what he called “legitimate rape” that oftentimes prevents pregnancy.
Romney and a full spectrum of GOP politicians — from the RNC to tea party groups — condemned Akin’s comments and called for him to drop out of a race considered crucial to Republican hopes of winning a Senate majority.
Akin apologized and called his remarks incorrect, but he has refused to end his Senate bid. The imbroglio has given new life to McCaskill, considered the most vulnerable Democratic senator running, and caused chagrin within the Republican establishment.
Republican strategist Karl Rove kept up the criticism of Akin on Monday, telling a breakfast in Tampa hosted by Politico that Akin “said a really stupid, indefensible thing from which there is no recovery, and if he really cares about the values of conservatism and pro-life, he will not go down for defeat as the biggest loss by a Republican candidate for Senate in modern history.”
Some conservatives including former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee have defended Akin’s decision to stay in the Missouri race, but Rove was unmoved.
“I talk to some conservatives who say, ‘It’s not fair. We have to stand with him,'” Rove said. “Well, it is unfair. I get that. But it was also incredibly wrong, and there was no recovery from it. It would be one thing if it was some minor misstatement. But this was pseudo-science and morally incomprehensible.”
A further concern is that Akin’s comments focused attention on the volatile abortion issue in the run-up to the convention, when the Romney campaign wanted to talk about the candidate’s prescriptions for high unemployment and slow economic growth under Obama.
Instead, Romney and Ryan, the conservative House Budget Committee chairman, have been asked repeatedly about differences between their personal views on whether abortion should be banned in all cases or permitted only for pregnancies from rape, incest or that threaten the life of the mother.
Romney’s Mormon faith supports the narrow exceptions, while Ryan — a devout Catholic — supports a blanket ban. The campaign has made clear the ticket supports Romney’s stance, which also contrasts with the party platform.
CNN’s Kevin Bohn, Paul Steinhauser, Dana Davidsen, Ashley Killough, Dana Bash, Deirdre Walsh, Halimah Abdullah, Martina Stewart and Mark Preston contributed to this report.
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