Republicans haunted by ghosts of Katrina

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his wife Ann in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire 27 August 2012 Image copyright AP
Image caption Many voters say they do not feel they know who is Mitt Romney, the man

Tropical Storm Isaac has passed Tampa, Florida, with no more than some heavy rain and high winds.

There really was no need to cancel the first day of the Republican National Convention.

But it is where the tropical storm is heading next, to a place of awful memory, that haunts them now.

If organisers of this convention wake clammy in their hotel beds, sweaty hands clutching hearts that beat too fast, it is because they have had a very vivid, very specific nightmare of how this week could end in disaster if they mishandle a tragedy.

A dream of presidential candidate Mitt Romney ripping into President Barack Obama, delegates going wild, triumphant and happy as the levees break, thousands flee in misery and New Orleans sinks beneath the waves.

For behind Tropical Storm Isaac lurks the ghost of Hurricane Katrina, raising shades of awful memory.

That hurricane hit New Orleans seven years ago this week and although former President George W Bush insists it is most unfair, the handling of that catastrophic storm has become a symbol for a Republican failure, a casual, callous indifference to the plight of poor black residents.

Imitating Popeye

So there is talk, fanciful and fearful, I think, of cutting the conference to one day and Mr Romney making his speech from another venue.

They should be haunted too by Arizona Senator John McCain's suspension of his campaign in 2008 because of the economic crisis, and how silly that looked.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption A disaster in New Orleans would distract from the Romney campaign's big moment

But this is how strategists get when they feel the prize within their grasp, and the recent opinion polls will have excited them.

It all underscores how important it is for them to get the tone right this week.

It is about making Mr Romney appear worthy of becoming president. He - or his advisers - have hit on a curious formulation to achieve this.

It might not be easy to imagine Mr Romney with a small pipe, oversized, tattooed muscles, glugging back a can of spinach.

But the soon-to-be officially nominated Republican candidate has been quite insistent in recent interviews: he is like Popeye.

What he has in common with the cartoon sailor man is the declaration: "I am what I am."

This shoulder-shrugging, take-it-or-leave-it approach has more gravitas than the teenage "whatever".

It could either seem endearingly self-deprecating or arrogantly smug. It is also the very meaning of the name of God in the Old Testament.

So, Mr Romney is not that careless of the company he keeps.

But it boils down to an admission that he has proved fantastically difficult to package. Politically, he is a hard sell.

Even this latest tactic is better suited to the rumpled and rumbustious, brawling seaman or jealous gods, than this stiff and awkward man.

This makes how they do decide to present him at the end of the week all the more interesting.

Many who pack into the hall this week will instinctively sympathise with the advice of former President Teddy Roosevelt: "When you are dealing with politics, you feel you have your enemy right in front of you and you must shake your fist at him and roar the Gospel of Righteousness in his deaf ear."

No doubt a great deal of fist-shaking will ensue. Some will roar and I dare say the odd tub will be thumped too.

But I think Mr Romney will leave that to others and try to rise above the roaring.

One hint came from a video for the very brief official opening of the convention, which saw him looking noble over lines about the US being built on on immigration and diversity.

Not at all the harsh tone of the party during the primaries.

Patriotism and unity are likely to be his watch words, as his advisers check the progress of Isaac on their blackberries and iPhones, fingers crossed the boss does not get dragged into choppy waters by any ghostly undertow off the Gulf.