By Samuel P. Jacobs
TAMPA, Florida (Reuters) - Hanging over the highway leading into Tampa, Florida, a billboard greets the thousands of Republicans and journalists flooding the Gulf Coast city for the Republican National Convention.
"Welcome to Tampa!" it reads, "Where the mayor and all city council members are DEMOCRATS."
Local officials aren't the only ones eager to wag a finger at the visitors here to witness Mitt Romney's presidential nomination, which will officially place him atop the Republican Party ticket for the November 6 general election.
While a planned visit to Tampa by Vice President Joe Biden was nixed, the Democratic Party has flown in some of President Barack Obama's sharpest defenders to steal some of Romney's spotlight and jump in front of television cameras to rebut the Republican vision.
The Democratic National Committee has rented a storefront space just outside the Republican National Convention's security perimeter, which party operatives have dubbed their "war room."
As Republicans juggle their festivities in face of a hurricane heading toward New Orleans, the Democrats in Tampa have been forced into similar acrobatics, playing politics to the hilt while asserting that their attention is on the storm.
Four of the Democrats who spoke with reporters on Tuesday, including former Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs and Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley, began their comments by expressing their concern for people in the storm's path.
The Democrats have focused on some of the key speakers at the convention, including Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American, who will introduce Romney on Thursday.
On Tuesday, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, chairman of the Democratic National Convention, told reporters at a press conference that the Republican Party's outreach to Hispanic voters has amounted to "window dressing."
"You can't just trot out a brown face or a Spanish surname and expect that people are going to vote for your party or your candidate," the mayor said.
A recent poll by NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Telemundo showed Romney trailing Obama by 44 percentage points among Hispanics.
'ANGRY DON RICKLES'
O'Malley, the Maryland governor seen as a potential presidential candidate in 2016, needled New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Republican star who will deliver the feature address on Tuesday.
O'Malley likened Christie, a frequent sparring partner, to an "angry Don Rickles," the notoriously cranky comedian.
The Democrats also took aim at Romney's policies, wallpapering their war room with signs reading "Romney Economics wrong for the middle class."
Looking beyond the economy, the Democrats published a full-page ad in the Tampa Tribune linking Missouri Representative Todd Akin with Romney and running mate Paul Ryan, hoping to join the congressman's controversial comments regarding "legitimate rape" to the policies of his party's presidential ticket.
Not that the visiting Democrats are being allowed to question Romney unchallenged. On Monday, Villaraigosa, sporting a tie colored Democratic blue, visited with reporters.
"Can we ask you a question about Los Angeles?" a reporter for the conservative Pajamas Media asked. "Los Angeles has empty storefronts all over the place during your administration."
The mayor did not respond. The reporter stalked off.
Villaraigosa said his party's convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, next week will be more inclusive and diverse than the Republican gathering, adding that Obama will accept the nomination at a football stadium before an anticipated crowd of 65,000 people.
Ryan Williams, a Romney spokesman, said Tuesday that Obama's surrogates in Tampa continued to launch "false and baseless attacks" against Romney.
"The facts speak for themselves - with 23 million Americans struggling for work, nearly one in six Americans living in poverty and median incomes declining, the Obama campaign cannot defend a record of broken promises and failed policies," he said.
In the past, parties preferred to keep out of sight when their opponents held their nominating conventions.
This week, Obama and Biden are on the campaign trail. Biden sent out a fundraising e-mail, timed to the Republican convention's start, asking for donations.
The Republicans are expected to fight back when the Democrats hold their convention. A spokesperson for the Romney campaign said the Republicans were not ready to unveil their plans yet.
"Going back to 1980s, there was a tradition of letting the other side have their moment in the sun," said Democratic strategist Tad Devine, a veteran of presidential campaigns for John Kerry and Al Gore. "There was also a commonly held belief that anything we are going to do isn't going to make as much news. That was a different time."
(Editing by Jim Loney)
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