TAMPA – Isaac was out there somewhere, an uninvited blowhard. The sky was dark, spitting and gusting, impatient for some serious storming.
On TVs around town, radar showed a ragged mop of moisture swabbing its way north up the Florida peninsula.
Thus began the Republican National Convention – although its not entirely clear when it will really start in earnest, or when it will end. Today is a washout, and rumors have spread that Tuesdays events could be in political peril if a major hurricane slams the Gulf Coast to the north. Everyone could be in town for a while.
Sunday had a sloppy feel to it. Delegates loitered in hotel lobbies, with plenty of delicious liquids to keep their spirits buoyed.
Were pumped, said Judy Schwalbach, a delegate from Michigan, sipping champagne early Sunday afternoon in the lobby of the Embassy Suites.
Everyones getting into the festive mood, said superdelegate Saul Anuzis, ordering his second flute.
Were from the U.P.! Schwalbach said. The Upper Peninsula. You want to talk about weather? Come up to see a blizzard sometime!
The show has to go on somehow, said Anuzis: Its almost impossible to call a new convention at another time. We will complete our statutory requirements to nominate a president and vice president.
A painting beloved by tea party conservatives was on display on a table in the hotel lobby: The Forgotten Man by John McNaughton, which depicts all the countrys previous presidents, led by George Washington, imploring a haughty President Obama to help a forlorn common man on a nearby park bench. In the painting, Obama is standing on the U.S. Constitution.
Here comes the governor of Michigan, Rick Snyder, a businessman who markets Michigan as a role model for economic recovery.
Were just going to roll with it, Snyder said of the weather.
Chaos can be good, suggested Newt Gingrich, after he was serenaded by a barbershop quartet Sunday morning at a baggage carousel at the Tampa airport.
What its going to do is force people to be flexible and allow people to relax and sort out whats going on, Gingrich said. One suggestion: They could attend Newt U, a series of seminars at the downtown Hyatt.
The less scripted it is, the more of a convention it feels like, instead of an infomercial, said Michael Morales, 34, of Medford, Mass., an attorney and delegate. Itll be nice to have a convention.
In the lobby of the Marriott near the Tampa Bay Times Forum, former New Hampshire governor John Sununu said the rain and wind wouldnt make any difference and most Americans wouldnt even notice it. He plans to spend his free time today doing interviews on Radio Row in the media center, repeating a well-honed set of talking points – that Mitt Romney is a good family man who can fix problems.
Downtown, the delegates were arriving. The convention area was largely empty, patrolled by squadrons of police on bikes. There are security fences everywhere, and concrete security barriers backed by dump trucks turned sideways and checkpoints. The people with the best access have stacks of credentials hanging from their necks. Tunnels lit by red, white and blue lights provide an air-conditioned path between some buildings. On Sunday, the mounting wind tugged at their tarpaulin sides.
This is a big event, bigger than a Super Bowl. There are 4,000 law-enforcement officers on the streets, not counting the National Guard and the Secret Service. The mayor, Bob Buckhorn, said the Tampa Bay area anticipates 90,000 room-nights booked at hotels.
The combination of a convention and a tropical storm complicates his job, Buckhorn said, but he pointed out that his city has planned and trained for both kinds of events. Indeed, a big convention is kind of like a hurricane, he said.
Its akin to – I dont want to say a natural disaster – but a lot of the fundamentals are the same.
He anticipates disruption from protesters. Hes ready for that, too. He brought in 3,000 law-enforcement officers from elsewhere in the state to help with security.
If they have a badge and a gun, we were happy for their help, Buckhorn said.
As for the protesters: Our level of response will be determined by their level of aggression. I wanted to deploy overwhelming force. I wanted the message to be very clear. If youre here to express yourself, youre welcome. And if youre here to cause trouble, well deal with you with overwhelming force.
Ten miles away from the secure zone, in a college basketball arena, supporters of presidential candidate Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, spent Sunday at their own raucous rally.
Last week, an RNC committee approved a rule change designed to blunt one of Pauls tactics for amassing convention delegates.
It feels good, but it could feel better if Ron Paul was treated fairly by the Republican Party, said George Briere, an Internet marketer and ex-Marine from Escanaba, Mich. He called the partys leaders liars, cheats and thieves.
We feel that we have to take over the Republican Party, he said.
Paul told the audience that the GOP had offered him an hour-long speaking slot at last.
Tomorrow night! Paul said, laughing. It was a joke since that is the night that Isaac had already washed away.