TAMPA - When Republican National Chairman Reince Priebus banged the gavel to open his party's nominating convention Monday afternoon, it was hard to miss the images CNN was displaying across the bottom of the screen: a scarlet storm symbol spinning in the Gulf of Mexico, a fever chart marking wind speed, and a bulletin crawl informing viewers that the governor of Alabama had just declared a state of emergency.
That moment illustrates the dilemma facing the GOP as Tropical Storm Isaac lumbers toward the Gulf Coast, forecast to become a hurricane and threatening devastation - replete with reminders of Hurricane Katrina - at the very time the party needs its convention, which gets fully under way here Tuesday, to sell Mitt Romney to the nation.
Some party officials fretted about the possibly negative imagery of Republicans celebrating and launching attacks on President Obama amid televised scenes of destruction and death. Any damage to New Orleans would be a particularly potent symbol, considering the Bush administration's mishandling of the federal response to Katrina there in 2005.
At a minimum, strategists say, the storm threatens to draw away media coverage that the GOP needs to launch Romney into the final weeks of a campaign in which the challenger is running neck-and-neck with the president in national and swing-state polls.
"We are going to make sure that we monitor the storm as it proceeds," said Russ Schriefer, a top adviser to Romney who is helping to produce the convention. "Obviously, our first concern is for the people who are in the path of the storm. We have a wait-and-see attitude."
The party had already scrapped Monday's program, except for Priebus' ceremonial rap of the gavel, and will pack four days of speakers and pageantry into three. Yet the television networks, which planned just an hour per night of prime-time coverage, are sure to divide their attention between proceedings here and the storm.
At the convention hall, supporters of Rep. Ron Paul tried to create a storm of their own by demonstrating, bearing signs that read "Ron Paul Can Do Better."
The political ramifications of natural disasters can be hard to predict. Imagine pictures of Obama and Vice President Biden in hip waders, showing their empathy for residents of the Gulf Coast after a direct hit, looking as if they are in charge of a forceful recovery and rescue effort. Conversely, if the federal response is bungled, the administration could become the goat. That weighs on the convention planners and party leaders.
"We have to continue to go, and be sensitive, but the convention has to come off," said Rob Gleason, chairman of the Pennsylvania Republican Party. "We have to nominate him and get our campaign under way."
The convention is perhaps the last time for the Romney campaign to get its message out unfiltered, and his strategists were looking forward to using it to address what polls have shown are weaknesses in his candidacy.
For one, Romney carries the burden of historically low favorability ratings. Though voters surveyed in national polls fault Obama for job performance, particularly on the economy, most say they like him personally more than they do Romney.
The Obama campaign has spent a small fortune trying to reinforce those negative impressions via attack ads depicting the former Massachusetts governor as someone who, in his private-sector career, shipped American jobs oversees and is content to wipe out the middle class for the benefit of Wall Street cronies.
Schriefer and others had drawn up elaborate plans to showcase Romney's managerial skills, portraying him as best positioned to lift the nation from its economic doldrums. Now, they face the risk that coverage of Isaac will overshadow the show.
The storm forced organizers to reshuffle a carefully planned lineup of speakers, videos, and testimonials from ordinary Americans.
Monday night was to have been devoted to attacks on Obama's record. Now those critiques will be spread throughout the convention - though strategist Karl Rove did take time Monday morning to bash the administration, drawing contrasts with a president he once counseled. George W. Bush "was seen as a strong leader," Rove told reporters. "Obama is not."
But Republican leaders were resigned to watching the red storm symbol with everyone else and hoping for the best. "You can't predict Mother Nature," House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio said Monday during a Christian Science Monitor luncheon with reporters. "You have to make the best of it."