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Ghost of Katrina hovers over Republican National Convention in Tampa

TAMPA — The official message couldn't be clearer: The Republican National Convention will proceed this morning, period.

More quietly, Republicans have begun to whisper a grim word that sums up all their fears about the 2012 party gathering: Katrina.

No longer are GOP worries focused on the prospect of Tropical Storm Isaac striking Tampa and blowing up the party's plans to crown Mitt Romney as its nominee. There's still the possibility of logistical disruptions, but a meteorological mess doesn't appear to be in the offing here.

Instead, party officials and convention planners are increasingly anxious about a different and possibly more damaging scenario: a split-screen broadcast of Republicans partying in Tampa alongside images of serious storm damage in states such as Louisiana and Mississippi.

Some Republicans here worry the juxtaposition of events could revive memories of the disastrous 2005 storms — Hurricanes Katrina and Rita — and the government's terrible handling of them.

Public outrage over the George W. Bush administration's response to those catastrophes — especially Katrina — shadowed the president and the GOP for years. For Republicans, Katrina is their version of the Carter administration's failed Iranian hostage rescue in 1980, an enduring symbol of collective incompetence, a political wound that will not heal.

For the 2012 convention to move ahead amid another Gulf Coast disaster could make Romney and his supporters look oblivious to the plight of the victims — or, at the very least, leave them competing for media attention for a full week with a disaster response effort.

Isaac is not expected to create Katrina's extreme level of havoc. But Republicans are bracing for the political impact anyway, and have not ruled out the possibility of canceling or revising the remaining three days of the convention.

Former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who led his state through Katrina, said he believes the convention will still be a "springboard for Romney and Ryan" but acknowledged that the storm could force additional changes to the schedule.

"My governor is home in Mississippi where he's supposed to be, getting ready, and I think that's true about the other gulf state governors," Barbour said at a poll briefing here for the group Resurgent Republic. "Everybody here has got one eye on this storm."

Barbour said, on a fatalistic note: "There's one thing you can predict about hurricanes: They're unpredictable."

In an interview with ABC News, House Speaker John Boehner invoked Katrina by name to express dismay at the approaching storm: "After what (the gulf states have) been through with Katrina, to have another big hurricane come there, it's a cause for concern."

Family Research Council head Tony Perkins, a former Louisiana legislator, told POLITICO in a phone call from his home state that he doesn't know if "there's anything the RNC can do differently" until it's clear how powerful Isaac will become.

"Obviously, if it were a storm of the Katrina capacity, then it would change the focus of the RNC. The only way to really avoid this is if they have the convention in December or out of hurricane season," Perkins said. "It's unfortunate, because it's certainly going to put a damper on the enthusiasm for the convention, especially those in the affected areas. They're going to have their eye on the Weather Channel and not on the convention."

In private conversations, a number of Republicans with ties to Romney's campaign sounded more frustrated, grumbling at the constant speculation that the convention could disintegrate under the weight of the weather. They have had to bat down a seemingly endless series of rumors about the fate of the convention, including suggestions that the convention could be extended into Friday or canceled altogether.

But former GOP presidential nominee Sen. John McCain also set a high bar for sensitivity in situations like this one. In 2008, just three years after Katrina devastated New Orleans, McCain canceled the first day of his convention in St. Paul out of respect for the victims of another storm, Hurricane Gustav, which didn't touch down in Minnesota but caused damage along the Gulf Coast.

Since it's impossible to know which of the scenarios will unfold, leading Republicans are taking pains not to be seen as oblivious to the possible impact of the storm.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott canceled his plans to speak at the convention, though he still gave remarks to delegates at a breakfast Monday. Govs. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Robert Bentley of Alabama and Phil Bryant of Mississippi have all scrapped their trips to Tampa in order to prepare for Isaac's impact.

The Republican Party of Florida announced in an email on Monday that it would be directing storm response donations online to the American Red Cross. Party chairman Lenny Curry called it a show of solidarity with citizens affected by Isaac.

Depending on the impact of the storm, Curry said that other tweaks to the convention proceedings could be appropriate — but that in some fashion or another, the show must go on.

"We have to have a convention. Outside of it being a party, it's a business meeting making Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan our official nominees," Curry said.

"We're going to be thoughtful about messaging," he went on. "The RNC and the Romney camp will have to make those decisions, but I think we've already seen the sensitivity to that just from what we've done over the last couple of days."

The Romney campaign, for its part, continues to insist that the convention will proceed apace. At a Bloomberg event here Monday morning, Romney advisers Ed Gillespie and Gail Gitcho said there was no talk — at least, not yet — of scrapping further events.

In New Hampshire, Romney himself told a pool reporter that he anticipated a "great convention ahead," adding a word of sympathy for potential storm victims.

"Our thoughts are with the people that are in the storm's path and hope that they're spared any major destruction," he said.

Vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan told supporters at a rally in his hometown of Janesville, Wis., that they should keep in their "minds and our prayers the people who have been victims of Hurricane Isaac."

Ryan, who had originally been scheduled to arrive in Tampa on Monday evening ahead of his midweek speech to the convention, now plans to arrive today after the weather clears.

Republican strategist Mary Matalin, who flew to New Orleans this week instead of Tampa to board up her house, predicted the storm would not be "havoc, just messy and wet."

"As for the Tampa convention, they should just acknowledge the fellow citizens in harm's way, pray for them and all the compassionate volunteers that always (help) their fellow Americans in such tragedies," she wrote in an email.

"People, especially women, want to see and hear Governor Romney and his key players, and take their measure of a Romney presidency."

Not all Republicans have been careful in their public comments about the storm. California Rep. Darrell Issa sounded a defiant and even brash note in speaking to his state's convention delegation, declaring: "If this is the first storm of Republicans taking control of our country again, making America competitive again, I'm fine with that."

"I don't care if we get blown in by a hurricane or tornado. Ultimately, there's going to be an earthquake in Washington next January," he said.

All through the day, the officials directly involved in storm response released a steady stream of updates about the path of the storm and efforts to contain the damage.

On Twitter, Jindal posted information about areas being evacuated and local services shutting down.

"Today is the day to get out of harm's way," warned Jindal, who was elected in the aftermath of Katrina.

Ghost of Katrina hovers over Republican National Convention in Tampa 08/27/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 28, 2012 1:02am]
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