TAMPA, Florida — Postponements and hurricane warnings did little to dampen the spirits of Republican party faithful in Tampa, Florida, Monday for their party's presidential nominating convention. Party officials cut back the day's events to a 10-minute opening ceremony as Tropical Storm Isaac surged through the nearby Gulf of Mexico, but many delegates were undeterred.
Wind and rain from Isaac lashed Tampa early Monday, but the impact was much weaker than anticipated. Tornado warnings were issued shortly before the convention was gaveled open, but an overnight downpour had ended and Florida's famed sunshine was breaking through the clouds.
Even so, a heavy security presence and the decision to cancel most of Monday's events had turned the area around the convention site into a virtual ghost town.
Convention volunteer Will Rubens says even many of those tasked with working the convention stayed away. “The local volunteers we gave them the day off, because we didn't want them to drive here in bad weather in case it got really bad,” Rubens said.
Republican leaders opened the convention with a simple 10-minute session in a mostly empty arena, the sound of a gavel signaling the official start of what will now be a three-day event.
Organizers suggested there could be more changes to the convention schedule depending on the storm's impact along the Gulf Coast. The National Weather Service says the storm could be on track to strike New Orleans, almost exactly seven years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Louisiana city.
“We are going to make sure that we monitor the storm as it proceeds and see what happens over the next few days,” said Chief convention planner Russ Schriefer.
But convention officials said they still expect a successful event.
Local businesswoman Angela Gard is overseeing the souvenir merchandise being sold at the convention - from t-shirts to hats to key chains, many featuring the Republican Party's signature elephant symbol.
“Other than canceling for today, I don't think it's affected much of anything. We actually have people very interested in coming into the shop and shopping, so that's good for us,” Gard said.
That positive attitude was echoed by delegates to the convention - individuals who were chosen by party officials in their home states to cast the votes that will formally make former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney the Republican candidate to challenge President Barack Obama.
The delegation from Wisconsin, the home state of Romney's vice presidential pick Paul Ryan, was busy Monday morning posing for photographs at their hotel.
Wisconsin Lieutentant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch says there is still a “tremendous amount” of energy and excitement.
“There's a 16-point enthusiasm gap in Wisconsin right now. That means there are more Republicans who are enthusiastic about getting out there and voting for the Romney-Ryan ticket, the comeback team in November, than Democrats are enthused about voting for the failed policies of the president. And so I don't know that Isaac can rain on our parade,” she said.
High-profile party members used the day to energize delegates and focus their attention on key issues. One of those events was led by Newt Gingrich, an unsuccessful contender for the Republican nomination. Gingrich conducted the first of several scheduled seminars dubbed “Newt University.”
“When you talk about who's tearing up Medicare, it is in fact Obama, but we want a fact-based campaign, because we will win a fact-based campaign by a decisive margin,” Gingrich said.
Delegates will hear from more of the party elite beginning Tuesday when the convention gets fully under way. Among those delivering speeches are Romney's wife, Ann, and convention keynote speaker New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.