By Tom Cohen
TAMPA, Florida (CNN) — Monday was supposed to be Obama-bashing day to launch the Republican National Convention, and GOP organizers showed they were not going to let something like bad weather totally derail their agenda.
While the full proceedings of the first day were canceled because of Tropical Storm Issac, effectively cutting the planned four-day convention to three, Republican officials kept up their efforts to frame President Barack Obama’s leadership as a failure in terms of achievement, direction and substance.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus gaveled the convention to order at 2 p.m. ET to cheers from several hundred delegates who showed up to witness the brief session that then went into recess until Tuesday.
He pointed out a digital clock in the convention hall tabulating the amount of additional national debt accrued during the proceedings, telling the delegates and journalists, “We also wanted to draw your attention to the unprecedented fiscal recklessness of the Obama administration.”
The original schedule called for targeting Obama on the first day to set up the desired contrast with MItt Romney at the gathering that will formally nominate the former Massachusetts governor as the Republican candidate against the incumbent president in November. Despite the lost day, GOP officials said criticism of Obama’s presidency would be a consistent theme throughout the week.
“What we would want to do is 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,” said Russ Schriefer, a strategist for Romney’s campaign. “Stagnant economy, increasing debt, you know, and more importantly, the disappointment that many Americans feel in President Obama that he just hasn’t lived up to the promises of the past four years.”
Schriefer acknowledged at the same time Monday that convention organizers were keeping a nervous eye on Tropical Storm Isaac. Forecast to reach hurricane strength, Isaac churned through the Gulf of Mexico on the same path as Hurricane Katrina, a storm that devastated New Orleans seven years ago this month.
Full proceedings are now scheduled to begin Tuesday, when the convention’s 2,200-plus delegates will adopt a conservative platform and endorse Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, as the GOP ticket. Romney will arrive in Tampa on Tuesday, his campaign said.
“We are continuing to go ahead with our program with Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday,” Schriefer said, adding that “we’re gonna make sure that we monitor the storm as it proceeds and see what happens over the next few days.”
The 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,” Schriefer said, describing “a wait-and-see attitude to see what happens with the storm.”
Romney has shown no inclination to further delay the proceedings that offer his best chance to define himself to Americans who, according to polls, think Obama is more in touch with their daily lives and needs.
“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 said. “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 that Trump would 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 are expected to listen to many of the speeches, especially ones by Ann Romney on Tuesday night and Mitt Romney on Thursday night.
Together, Sheldon and Miriam Adelson 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.
Adelson, a casino magnate and 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.
Has the tea party ‘sold out’ to the GOP?
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 — firefighters, students, seniors and children — as they walk across the convention floor to accept the GOP nomination.
“The ad is aimed at conveying to voters how Romney and Ryan would raid the middle class to transfer wealth to the top 1%,” the group said in a statement.
While the CNN/ORC International Poll indicates a dead heat between Romney and Obama, the new numbers released Sunday show that likely voters believe Obama is more in touch with their needs.
“The public gives Obama a big advantage over Romney on questions on caring about people and understanding their concerns,” said CNN Polling Director Keating Holland, adding that Romney’s strong points in the minds of poll respondents are his managerial skills and having a clear plan to solve the country’s problems.
According to the poll, 53% of likely voters say Obama cares about the needs of people, with 39% feeling the same way about 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 6-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,” Holland said.
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.
According to the survey, likely voters prefer Obama’s policies on gay and lesbian issues by 59%-33% and choose Obama over Romney on abortion by 53%-40%. The president also has a 51%-44% advantage over Romney on foreign policy and a 50%-43% margin on terrorism.
The candidates were statistically even on the economy, with Romney’s 50%-46% advantage within the survey’s margin of error, and Romney holds a 10-point advantage on handling the federal deficit.
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.
Republican organizers say the shortened convention schedule provides enough time for all the planned major speeches, though some will be shortened to fit the revised schedule.
Sen. John McCain, the Republican nominee in 2008 who had the first day of his nominating convention in Minneapolis shortened because of a hurricane then threatening the Gulf Coast, agreed that losing one night is manageable. However, McCain told NBC on Sunday, “It could be harmful if we lose more than that.”
In a sign of how badly the party wants to hold the convention to showcase Romney, GOP officials have not ruled out extending it by a day to Friday if necessary, a Republican source told CNN.
On Sunday talk shows, Republicans said 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, 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, said in 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.”
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 is a good man with a good heart who “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 that convention delegates are scheduled to vote on this week.
In an interview with Fox broadcast on Sunday, Romney again answered questions on the Akin comments, saying “it obviously is being used by Democrats to try and cast a shadow on our entire party, and it’s not.”
At the same time, Romney noted that Democrats are “wise enough to understand” that Akin’s comments can hurt Republicans.
Meanwhile, a new Romney ad Sunday continued his campaign’s aggressive stance on another potentially vulnerable issue: Medicare.
Like previous Romney spots, the new ad includes a claim that, “As president, Barack Obama cut $700 billion from Medicare to pay for Obamacare,” the 2010 health care reform law despised by Republicans.
The claim cites a report from the Congressional Budget Office that shows repeal of the president’s health care law would mean an additional $716 billion in spending on Medicare. However, it ignored the same report’s finding that the additional spending would come from rising costs and inefficiencies that the health care law would have addressed, rather than restoring money cut from Medicare.
The Obama campaign has called the Romney claim on Medicare false, citing the CBO report, and repeatedly attacked the Medicare reform plan proposed by Ryan that would partially privatize the government-run health care program for senior citizens. Democrats claim the Republican proposal would “end Medicare as we know it,” while Ryan says his plan is the kind of reform necessary to ensure Medicare’s long-term solvency.
According to the poll results released Sunday, likely voters are evenly divided between the candidates on the Medicare issue.
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.