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Tropical storm Isaac: Will it drown out Mitt Romney's big moment?

The Republican convention is crucial to Mitt Romney's attempts to overcome his image as an uncaring plutocrat, GOP experts say. But tropical storm Isaac could be a huge distraction.  

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Dante Scala, a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire, Durham, agrees that Romney needs to build up voters’ comfort level with him as a person, but that may not be enough for them to entrust him with the presidency. Romney still needs to convince voters that he has a workable plan to turn the economy around, Mr. Scala says.

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“A lot of those voters feel as if Obama hasn’t lived up to his promise – especially working-class whites who weren’t comfortable with him from the get-go,” he says. “But they’re not especially comfortable with Romney either.”

White working-class women, in particular, pose a challenge for Romney, and “he needs to find a way to distance himself from the Republican brand without turning off his base,” Scala says.

That brand took a major blow last week when Rep. Todd Akin, the Republican Senate nominee in Missouri, made a comment about women's bodies being able to prevent pregnancy in cases of “legitimate rape.” The messy spectacle of the Republican establishment, including Romney, trying unsuccessfully to get Congressman Akin to drop out made for a week of bad headlines – and opened up a fresh line of attack by Obama and the Democrats eager to exploit their wide lead among women voters.

The Akin fiasco also opened up a fresh fissure between two branches of the Republican Party – the hard-line social conservatives and those who emphasize economic conservatism. Whether Romney is able to help heal that rift is another open question during convention week.

He could well get assists from two other key speakers: his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, and former presidential contender Rick Santorum. Both personally advocate for fewer exceptions on abortion than Romney, but at least in Congressman Ryan’s case, as running mate, he is going along with the Romney campaign position: allowances for abortion in the case of rape, incest, and a threat to the life of the mother.

Romney’s other challenge in holding the Republican Party together this week comes with the contingent who still fervently support libertarian Rep. Ron Paul (R) of Texas, Romney’s only challenger for the Republican nomination who never dropped out of the race. Congressman Paul held a separate event on Sunday that highlighted his displeasure with Romney as the Republican standard-bearer.

Analysts expect some Paul supporters to vote for Romney in November, but some could vote third party (say, by writing in Paul or voting for Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson) or just stay home.

But it’s the main stage of the convention that matters most to Romney, and whether he and his supporting cast of prime-time speakers can both excite the Republican base and attract undecided voters.

To Mr. O’Connell, the Republican strategist, Romney faces three tasks here in Tampa:

He has to tell people who he is and what he stands for.

He needs to demonstrate that the Republican Party is not just a party of old white men, but also one with vibrant constituencies of young people, Hispanics, and women.  

“And third, he has to get a little specific about what he would do to get the economy on track,” O’Connell says. “But obviously he can’t say too much, or Obama raps him on the head.”

Staff writer David Grant contributed to this report.

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