WASHINGTON (AP) — Tropical Storm Isaac forced the Republicans to do what the Democrats had already done voluntarily: shorten their national convention from four days to three. But the show, as they say, must go on. Political conventions are calibrated theater, after all, and as with any big show, random elements can cause chaos.
As the GOP convenes in Tampa for a convention delayed by a major storm and clouded by the fraught, Katrina-scarred politics of major storms in general, what are audiences looking for from this gathering? What are the mechanics involved in making the big show resonate for its audience? The answer, say some who either craft or assess image-making, is twofold: to acknowledge the storm without appearing to be making political hay out of it, and to keep things simple and, when possible, nonconfrontational.
"The American public is just about at wits' end with everything being partisan," says Richard S. Olson, who studies the politics of disaster at Florida International University in Miami.
"One of the problems with these scripted conventions is that, when something happens literally during convention time, the scripts make the speakers look out of touch," he says. "And if the RNC wants to connect to the broad American public, one of the ways to do that would be to talk about it, talk about disasters as transcending normal everyday politics and make it a true national concern."
Political conventions in general have been losing viewership for years. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the presumptive GOP nominee, bemoaned announcements by some news outlets that they didn't plan to carry his wife's address live. But do people — those involved in politics and regular voters alike — expect too much from these gatherings?
"I'm not sure it's fundamentally an exercise of winning independent voters or bridging the credibility gap that a challenger has against an incumbent," says Terry Holt, who served as a senior adviser for the RNC and as senior communication strategist on both of George W. Bush's successful campaigns. "I don't look at the convention as the be all and the end all. It's the opening act of the general election campaign. It's important that it go well and that it showcase the high points of Romney's agenda. It's the gun going off and not the whole race."
Howard Bragman's counsel would be relatively straightforward. Bragman, who gave PR advice to former Bill Clinton intern and paramour Monica Lewinsky and her family "after you know what," says he would parade across the convention stage the following people: Ann Romney, all five of the couple's sons and as many of their 18 grandkids as the family could muster.
"Whoever could humanize this guy and start to build a dimensional character as opposed to a cardboard cutout who looks presidential," says Bragman, vice chairman of reputation.com.
To that end, the RNC spent a reported $2.5 million building a stage for Romney's acceptance speech that, in the words of one NPR commentator, evokes the feeling of a living room — a uniting, humanizing image. That approach makes sense to Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, who says Romney can do this year what Ronald Reagan did in 1980: Focus his audience on the things that unite the party and avoid the rest.
"They have to stay away from the social and cultural issues," says Zelizer, author of the book "Governing America." ''They really need to stick on taxes and budgets, regulation. They have to make that the broader theme."
That sounds right to Kevin Homel, 57, who owns a small mail-order business near Pittsburgh. He was a registered Democrat until about 20 years ago, when he switched to the GOP. The message he wants from Tampa: that his party "is heading in the direction of fiscal responsibility by balancing the budget, repealing 'Obamacare' and reducing the size of government which, overall, is in line with the Tea Party."
Ray Davis, 47, a woodworker from Little Rock, Ark., has seen his business take a hit along with the housing market. He's not planning to watch the convention for the same reason he's decided he won't be voting for Obama. "Actions speak louder than words," he says. "They sit up there and talk a good game, but it's how they carry it out that matters."
With Missouri U.S. Senate candidate Todd Akin's comments on rape and abortion, and Romney's joke about Obama's birth certificate, "August has been a month of distractions," Holt says. So how to prevent Isaac from becoming another one? Leverage it — carefully.
In keeping with the GOP message of people not relying too heavily on government, Republicans could "highlight people who are in some ways being entrepreneurial heroes ... people who are just, on their own volition, going out and helping people, protecting property and otherwise mitigating the storm damage," says Seth Masket, a political scientist at the University of Denver.
While some might see that as taking advantage of a bad situation, Masket says the danger is minimal because "the issue already comes politicized."
"It's a hurricane during a national convention," he says. "And the last time one of these hit New Orleans, it was a major political issue for the Republicans. It's going to affect them politically, whether they want it or not."
It might seem disingenuous, but Syracuse University professor Robert Thompson says Tampa organizers need to intersperse the speeches with prayers for Gulf Coast residents and moments of silence and, generally, "not make it look like you're clueless as to what's going on."
"A lot of people have grown cynical to that kind that of thing, but you have to do it," says Thompson, director of the school's Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture. "Maybe you could not plan your convention in a vulnerable city during hurricane season. But it's too late for that. They've rented the rooms and hired the catering."
The trick, he says, will be getting heard above Isaac's winds.
Associated Press writer Pauline Arrillaga in Phoenix, Joe Mandak in Pittsburgh and Andrew DeMillo in Little Rock, Ark., also contributed to this report. Allen G. Breed is based in Raleigh, N.C. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/AllenGBreed