TAMPA, Fla. – His Republican National Convention curtailed by a threatened hurricane, Mitt Romney conceded Sunday that fresh controversy over rape and abortion is harming his party and he accused Democrats of trying to exploit it for political gain.
"It really is sad, isn't it, with all the issues that America faces, for the Obama campaign to continue to stoop to such a low level," said Romney, struggling to sharpen the presidential election focus instead on a weak economy and 8.3 percent national unemployment.
His comments came as aides and party officials hurriedly rewrote the script for the convention, cut from four days to three because of the threat posed by approaching Tropical Storm Isaac. The storm is forecast to gain hurricane strength as it churns through the Gulf of Mexico but to pass well west of the convention city.
The revised schedule included a symbolic 10-minute session on Monday in a nearly empty hall, during which officials intend to launch a debt clock set to zero. The political objective is to show how much the government borrows throughout the convention week.
Officials did not rule out further changes because of the weather, and sidestepped when asked what might happen if, as seemed possible, the storm made landfall in the New Orleans area on the seventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. That storm killed 1,800 people and devastated the city.
"We're 100 percent full steam ahead on Tuesday," said Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, expressing confidence the one-day delay would be the extent of the cancellations.
Despite concerns about the weather, a mammoth pre-convention celebration went on as planned Sunday night, attended by thousands of delegates and others who flocked to the Rays major league baseball stadium turned into a party venue in nearby St. Petersburg.
Priebus said Romney's nomination would take place on Tuesday, as would approval of a conservative party platform.
The former Massachusetts governor delivers his acceptance speech Thursday night before a prime time TV audience, then sets out on the final leg of a quest for the presidency that spans two campaigns and more than five years.
Polls make the race a close one, with a modest advantage for President Barack Obama.
For all the Republican attempts to make the election a referendum on the incumbent's handling of the economy, other events have intervened.
An incendiary comment more than a week ago by Rep. Todd Akin, the party's candidate for a Senate seat in Missouri, is among the intrusions. In an interview, he said a woman's body has a way of preventing pregnancy in the case of a "legitimate rape." The claim is unsupported by medical evidence, and the congressman quickly apologized.
Romney and other party officials, recognizing a political threat, unsuccessfully sought to persuade Akin to quit the race. Democrats have latched onto the controversy, noting not only what Akin said but also his opposition to abortion in all cases.
"Now, Akin's choice of words isn't the real issue here. The real issue is a Republican Party — led by Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan — whose policies on women and their health are dangerously wrong," said a recent letter from Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chairwoman of the Democratic Party.
The party also posted a Web video that emphasizes the Republican Party's opposition to abortion and digitally alters the Republicans' "Romney-Ryan" logo to say "Romney Ryan Akin."
Interviewed on Fox, his comments broadcast on Sunday, Romney said the controversy over Akin "hurts our party and I think is damaging to women."
Romney spent the day in New Hampshire where he has a summer home. Aides said he was spending part of his afternoon practicing his convention speech with the use of a teleprompter.
Delegates marked time as the storm raked the Florida Keys to the south of the convention city en route to a projected landfall along the Gulf Coast.
"Somebody raised the prospect of marathon Monopoly. I favor the game Risk, but we'll see," said Tom Del Beccaro, chairman of the California delegation. I think people will just be ready for Tuesday and be pretty energetic then."
Hundreds of miles away, Romney said he was concerned for the safety of those who "are going to be affected" by the storm, which is predicted to worsen into a hurricane as it heads for landfall along the Gulf Coast.
In a presidential race defined by its closeness, Republican office-holders past and present said the party must find a way to appeal to women and Hispanics, and they said the economy was the way to do it.
"We have to point out that the unemployment rate among young women is now 16 percent, that the unemployment rate among Hispanics is very high, that jobs and the economy are more important, perhaps, than maybe other issues," said Arizona Sen. John McCain, who lost to Obama in 2008.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush agreed, saying that Romney "can make inroads if he focuses on how do we create a climate of job creation and economic growth." If he succeeds, "I think people will move back towards the Republican side," Bush added.
Obama leads Romney among women voters and by an overwhelming margin among Hispanics, but he trails substantially among men.
The result is a race that is unpredictably close, to be settled in a small number of battleground states.
An estimated $500 million has been spent on television commercials so far by the two candidates, their parties and supporting outside groups, nearly all of it in Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, New Hampshire, Ohio, Iowa, Colorado and Nevada. Those states account for 100 electoral votes out of the 270 needed to win the White House.
Republicans have made no secret that they are eager to expand the electoral map to include Pennsylvania, Michigan, perhaps running mate Paul Ryan's Wisconsin and even Minnesota, states with 68 electoral votes combined.
All four are usually reliably Democratic in presidential campaigns. Yet Romney has a financial advantage over the president, according to the most recent fundraising reports, and a move by the Republicans into any of them could force Obama to dip into his own campaign treasury in regions he has considered relatively safe.
Making his case for the support of female voters, Romney said in the Fox interview: "'Look, I'm the guy that was able to get health care for all of the women and men in my state. ... 'I'm very proud of what we did."
It was a rare voluntary reference to the legislation he signed as governor of Massachusetts that required the state's residents to purchase coverage, the sort of mandate that is at the heart of Obama's federal legislation that conservatives oppose and Romney has vowed to see repealed.
Romney added that the state law was put into place "without cutting Medicare, which obviously affects a lot of women."
That was a reference to the federal law, which cut more than $700 billion in projected Medicare costs to help provide health care to millions who could not otherwise afford it.
Medicare generally favors Democrats as a political issue, but Romney has aggressively sought to cut into that advantage. He released a new television ad criticizing Obama's handling of the program with a catchphrase of "It ain't right."
The streets around the convention hall were crowded with police, National Guard and other security officials, who manned checkpoints in squads rather than individually.
A few hundred protesters gathered in a park about a half-mile from the convention vowed to make their point regardless of Tropical Storm Isaac. They set out large blocks of ice spelling out the words "middle class," and left them to melt on a warm, humid day, a gesture meant to signify middle class disappearance in a tough economy.
Bush and McCain were interviewed on NBC, and Priebus spoke on CNN.
Associated Press writers Tamara Lush and Brendan Farrington in Florida, Steve Peoples in New Hampshire, Philip Elliott in Wisconsin and Alicia Caldwell in Washington contributed to this story.