Republicans defy a gathering storm

Isaac was out there somewhere, an uninvited blowhard. The sky was dark, spitting and gusting, impatient for some serious storming. On TVs around town, radar showed a ragged mop of moisture swabbing its way north up the Florida peninsula.

Thus began the Republican National Convention — though it’s not entirely clear when it will really start in earnest, or when it will end. Monday’s a washout, and rumors have spread that Tuesday’s events could be in political peril if a major hurricane slams the Gulf Coast to the north. Everyone could be here for a while.

Sunday had a sloppy feel to it. Delegates loitered in hotel lobbies, with plenty of delicious liquids to keep their spirits buoyed.

“We’re pumped,” said Judy Schwalbach, a delegate from Michigan, sipping champagne early Sunday afternoon in the lobby of the Embassy Suites.

“Everyone’s getting into the festive mood,” said superdelegate Saul Anuzis, ordering his second flute.

“We’re from the U.P.!” Schwalbach said. The Upper Peninsula. “You want to talk about weather? Come up to see a blizzard sometime!”

The show has to go on somehow, said Anuzis: “It’s almost impossible to call a new convention at another time. We will complete our statutory requirements to nominate a president and vice president.”

A painting beloved by tea party conservatives was on display on a table in the hotel lobby: “The Forgotten Man” by John McNaughton, which depicts all the country’s previous presidents, led by George Washington, imploring a haughty President Obama to help a forlorn common man on a nearby park bench. In the painting, Obama is standing on the U.S. Constitution.

Here comes the governor of Michigan, Rick Snyder, a businessman who markets Michigan as a role model for economic recovery.

“We’re just going to roll with it,” Snyder said of the weather.

Chaos can be good, suggested Newt Gingrich, after he was serenaded by a barbershop quartet Sunday morning at a baggage carousel at the Tampa airport.

“What it’s going to do is force people to be flexible and allow people to relax and sort out what’s going on,” Gingrich said. One suggestion: They could attend “Newt U,” a series of seminars at the downtown Hyatt.

“The less scripted it is, the more of a convention it feels like, instead of an infomercial,” said Michael Morales, 34, of Medford, Mass., an attorney and delegate. “It’ll be nice to have a convention.”

In the lobby of the Marriott near the Tampa Bay Times Forum, former New Hampshire governor John Sununu said the rain and wind wouldn’t make any difference and most Americans wouldn’t even notice it. He plans to spend his free day Monday doing interviews on Radio Row in the media center, repeating a well-honed set of talking points — that Mitt Romney is a good family man who can fix problems.

He doesn’t mind repeating himself. “One of the advantages of senility is you forget what you said,” Sununu said.

Away from the safe zone around the convention site, in the old cigar-making neighborhood of West Tampa, dozens of people waited with dogs outside the Humane Society as the first raindrops fell. They were being offered free “microchipping,” implanting a chip that could identify a lost dog after the storm. Only 2 percent of dogs lost in storms ever are returned to their owners, one woman said as she waited with two dogs.

Downtown, the delegates were arriving. The convention area was largely empty, patrolled by squadrons of police on bikes. There are security fences everywhere, and concrete security barriers backed by dump trucks turned sideways and checkpoints. The people with the best access have stacks of credentials hanging from their necks. Tunnels lit by red, white and blue lights provide an air-conditioned path between some buildings. On Sunday, the mounting wind tugged at their tarpaulin sides.

This is a big event, bigger than a Super Bowl. There are 4,000 law-enforcement officers on the streets, not counting the National Guard and the Secret Service. The mayor, Bob Buckhorn, said the Tampa Bay area anticipates 90,000 room-nights booked at hotels.

The combination of a convention and a tropical storm complicates his job, Buckhorn said, but he pointed out that his city has planned and trained for both kinds of events. Indeed, a big convention is kind of like a hurricane, he said.

“It’s akin to — I don’t want to say a natural disaster — but a lot of the fundamentals are the same.”

He anticipates disruption from protesters. He’s ready for that, too. He brought in 3,000 law-enforcement officers from elsewhere in the state to help with security.

“If they have a badge and a gun, we were happy for their help,” Buckhorn said.

As for the protesters: “Our level of response will be determined by their level of aggression. . . . I wanted to deploy overwhelming force. I wanted the message to be very clear. If you’re here to express yourself, you’re welcome. And if you’re here to cause trouble, we’ll deal with you with overwhelming force.”

Ten miles away from the secure zone, in a college basketball arena, supporters of Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) spent Sunday at their own raucous rally. The Paul “convention” had elements that would be out of place at most Republican gatherings — the crowd of thousands booed loudly when former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan (a Paul nemesis) appeared in a Jumbotron video.

And it had elements that would be out of place at nearly any political gathering. The crowd, for instance, cheered accused Wikileaks leaker Bradley Manning, and booed at the mention of the year 1913 (when the Federal Reserve was established). They roared at videos of congressional committee hearings about monetary policy, starring Paul and his son, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.).

A young woman in a hipster fedora came out on the SunDome stage to scream a song called the “Ron Paul Anthem.” Badumdumdum! went the drum machine. “Ron Paul!” the crowd yelled in response, again and again.

Outside, vendors sold copies of the “Ron Paul Family Cookbook,” authored by Paul’s wife, Carol, for $5. Somebody had plastered the men’s room with stickers that showed Paul at work in the Oval Office: “Ron Paul, 45th and 46th president of the United States.”

Still, there was anger in this happy crowd. Earlier in the week, an RNC committee had approved a rule change designed to blunt one of Paul’s tactics for amassing convention delegates.

“It feels good, but it could feel better if Ron Paul was treated fairly by the Republican Party,” said George Briere, an Internet marketer and ex-Marine from Escanaba, Mich. He called the party’s leaders liars, cheats and thieves. “We feel that we have to take over the Republican Party,” he said.

In the convention hall, Paul’s supporters were on board, despite their literal exile from the party’s power center.

“Paul ’16! Paul ’16!” they roared, when Rand Paul came to the stage.

“Anybody here in favor of abolishing the TSA?” Paul said.

Then the Texas congressman took the stage to deliver a kind of valediction.

He said this will be his last presidential run. And he took full advantage, offering a long discourse that included a detailed dissection of the 20th century and a counter-factual rendering of recent history — if Paul had been in charge. Osama bin Laden might be alive, he said, but so would all the Americans who died on Sept. 11, 2001.

Paul noted obliquely that he had not reached the political promised land. He told the audience that the GOP — which had long kept him at arm’s length — had offered him an hour-long speaking slot at last.

“Tomorrow night!” Paul said, laughing. It was a joke since that is the night that Isaac, still spinning offshore, had already washed away.

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
David A. Fahrenthold covers Congress for the Washington Post. He has been at the Post since 2000, and previously covered (in order) the D.C. police, New England, and the environment.
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