TAMPA — The first day of the Republican National Convention was canceled Saturday because of the approaching threat of Tropical Storm Isaac, which forecasters expect to become Hurricane Isaac as it creeps up Florida's Gulf Coast and begins lashing the bay area overnight tonight.
Party officials made the decision after consulting Gov. Rick Scott and other local, state and federal officials. They fear the wind and rain could be so bad by Monday that it would make conditions too risky to transport delegates staying in Pinellas County hotels.
Delegates would have to ride high-profile buses across bay area bridges into Hillsborough County, assuming the storm hasn't already shut the bridges down.
"We're not going to put delegates on a bunch of buses on bridges between Clearwater and St. Petersburg," said Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus, "when we can't predict how severe the wind is going to be and how bad the damage will be."
Instead of a four-day convention set to begin Monday, officials said they're scrambling to plan a three-day convention. Now the RNC is set to start — weather permitting — on Tuesday and end with Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan taking the stage as the GOP's presidential and vice presidential nominees in front of a national TV audience Thursday night at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.
The presumptive nominee took to his Twitter account — @MittRomney — to back the GOP's decision to cancel Monday's activities.
"The safety of those in Isaac's path is of the utmost importance. I applaud those in Tampa making appropriate schedule changes," Romney tweeted.
Party officials said they were even developing contingency plans to house any delegations that have to be evacuated from their Pinellas hotels and drawing up alternate routes for them to travel safely to Tampa.
Officials said tonight's private kickoff party at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg is still on. Set to begin at 6 p.m., it is expected to draw 20,000 delegates, dignitaries and journalists.
Saturday's developments were reminiscent of 2008, when the GOP canceled the first day of its convention in Minnesota because Hurricane Gustav hit the Gulf Coast.
The prospects of opening this convention on time were already dimming as Tropical Storm Isaac grew stronger and drew nearer. Earlier Saturday, Scott canceled his entire convention schedule for Monday.
"I've got to get ready for taking care of the entire state," Scott said from Broward County.
The first day of the convention was not set to be broadcast on network television. Monday's featured speaker was to be former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Also set to speak were House Speaker John Boehner, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and one Democrat: Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn.
"The safety and welfare of residents along with the thousands of delegates and visitors in Tampa this week continues to be our first priority," Buckhorn said in a prepared statement.
RNC officials said they'll try to find time for everyone to speak during the shortened convention.
Some Republicans questioned whether the postponement was too hasty, including Al Austin, the local Republican stalwart who is considered the architect of Tampa's first political convention. "I agree, safety comes first," Austin said. "But I think they're jumping the gun a little bit. Having lived in Florida all my life, I think that as the storm enters the gulf it might move in a more westerly direction.''
Longtime Republican activist Al Cardenas of Miami, president of the American Conservative Union, sounded a more cautious note.
"You've got to make decisions based on what they say,'' Cardenas said. "It left really no real options for the RNC. They had no choice."
The convention is expected to draw 50,000 delegates, journalists and others to the Tampa Bay area. As officials across the state prepared for the approaching storm, delegates continued to arrive at Tampa International Airport.
Jerry Lathan, 56, a delegate and contractor from Mobile, Ala., said he's not concerned with the storm. He said he brought rain gear with him and he'll enjoy having Monday off.
"There's plenty to do here. We'll have fun," Lathan said. He admitted he would be worried if Isaac took aim for Alabama.
"Their first concern is safety," said California alternate Peggy Sadler, 75. "You can't be upset with that."
While GOP leaders opted for a one-day cancellation, protest leaders said their ranks remain undeterred.
"The only thing that could get us to call things off is if the Republicans leave town," said Jared Hamil, spokesman for Monday's Coalition to March on the RNC.
The Coalition March, the largest permitted protest, promised to draw more than 5,000 people for a march through downtown.
"People are already here and they're still arriving," Hamil said. "The march will go on, rain or shine."
The Rev. Bruce Wright, a local activist who helped organize the 2,000-strong Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign march for Monday, said it was too soon to see how the storm would affect their plans. He said protest groups need to balance their safety with losing their chance to be seen and heard at the convention.
"We're still going to march," Wright said. "If we have to change that plan, we'll do it later, when we can better tell how the storm is going to affect us."
Tara Colon, a protester at the "Romneyville" encampment of pink tents behind the Army Navy Surplus Market on N Tampa Street, said people there will see how bad it gets before deciding to stage protests. But other members of the camp seemed emboldened.
"That leaves the convention center open for us," John Penley said. "That's where we plan to go."
Despite Saturday's developments, party officials were as confident as ever the activities will go on.
"On Thursday, when Mitt Romney is giving his acceptance speech, and that place is rocking, nobody is going to remember Monday," said incoming House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, who said the party made the right call.
Vowed Priebus: "The Republican National Convention is going to take place."
Times staff writers Rick Danielson, Marissa Lang, Michael Van Sickler, Alex Leary, Dan Sullivan, Robbyn Mitchell, Liz Behrman, Stephanie Wang and Shelly Rossetter contributed to this report. Jamal Thalji can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3404.