Republicans will pursue a twin-themed program at their convention, focusing as much on discrediting President Barack Obama as making the case that Mitt Romney would do a better job in the White House.
The convention, reduced by the passage of tropical storm Isaac to three days from four, will see the adoption of an aggressive new tone by the Republican nominee in a campaign that is already ranked as one of the most negative in recent memory.
Officially, the party will convene on Monday with few delegates present and immediately recess until Tuesday afternoon. That will leave delegates – who were greeted as they exited Tampa's airport by a giant billboard reading "Don't believe the liberal media" – to hunker down until the worst of the storm passes.
With Mr. Romney still trailing in critical swing states, Republicans see an intensification of their attacks on the President and his record at their convention as their best chance of persuading undecided voters that Mr. Obama does not deserve re-election in November.
So far, Mr. Romney has been unable to build up the lead he needs among white, working-class voters to offset Mr. Obama's massive advance among single women and minorities. Much of the convention's content will speak to the economic anxieties of so-called Reagan Democrats, particularly middle-income earners in Midwest and West.
To underscore the GOP focus on fiscal issues, organizers announced Sunday they will start a second 'debt clock' ticking when the convention opens. It will calculate the amount of additional federal borrowing undertaken during the three-day gathering alone. Another clock will represent the the total debt on the books, which now stands at $15.9-trillion (U.S.).
"We'll address the failures of the administration over the past four years and we'll focus on the things Gov. Romney will do to make that better," Romney strategist Russ Schriefer said in a conference call with reporters outlining the convention's themes.
The strategy of focusing on white, working-class voters – who represent a declining share of the U.S. population – was criticized on Sunday by former Florida governor Jeb Bush. He has long sought to broaden the GOP coalition by urging a more generous policy toward illegal immigrants. Mr. Romney has gone in the other direction.
"Our demographics are changing, and we have to change – not necessarily our core beliefs, but the tone of our message and the intensity of it," Mr. Bush said on Meet the Press. "You can't ask people to join your cause and then send a signal that you're really not wanted. It just doesn't work."
With Monday night's events cancelled, and the weather putting a damper on the celebratory mood of conventioneers, GOP organizers will need to make an extra effort to get the attention of voters in their living rooms.
The major U.S. broadcast networks plan only an hour of primetime convention coverage on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. That has forced convention organizers to squeeze as much content as possible into a short amount of air time. Only seven speeches, including those of Mr. Romney and running mate Paul Ryan, are likely to get full network coverage.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, the self-styled reformer who has taken on public sector unions in his state, will give the keynote address on Tuesday evening. Organizers are banking on his appeal among working-class voters to set the tone for convention.
Mr. Christie will be preceded at the podium by Ann Romney. Organizers moved her address to Tuesday, even before the bad weather forced the cancellation of Monday's schedule, because the networks had otherwise to provide live coverage of her speech.
Mrs. Romney's speech will be aimed at presenting the softer side of her emotionally guarded husband and represents an attempt to reach out to women, who continue to support Mr. Obama in far larger numbers than his Republican rival. The gulf has likely widened following remarks last week by GOP Senate candidate and abortion foe Todd Akin, who said women rarely get pregnant if they are victims of a "legitimate" rape.
Speaking on Fox News Sunday, Mr. Romney conceded the Akin controversy "hurts our party and I think is damaging to women." But he also attacked Mr. Obama for seizing on the incident to suggest he would heed the anti-abortion Republican base if he becomes president.
"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," Mr. Romney said.
Rather than keeping a low profile during the GOP convention, a fast-fading courtesy, Mr. Obama plans to keep an active campaign schedule this week. He will address young voters in Iowa and Colorado, two swing states he is seeking to hold on to in November.
In an Associated Press interview on the weekend, Mr. Obama accused Mr. Romney of "signing up for extreme positions" championed by the Republican majority in the House of Representatives on everything from abortion rights to tax cuts for the rich.
"And whether he actually believes in those or not, I have no doubt he would carry forward some of the things that he's talked about," Mr. Obama said.
Meanwhile, former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice will precede Mr. Ryan on Wednesday to give the convention's only major address on foreign policy. While national security usually gets top billing at Republican gatherings, it is playing second fiddle this year, in part because of Mr. Obama's largely favourable foreign policy record.
Florida Senator Marco Rubio, the son of Cuban exiles and a one-time vice-presidential contender, will introduce Mr. Romney on Thursday evening. New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez will speak on Wednesday. While their speeches will likely include some Spanish phrases, Republican strategists have conceded that the party has all but given up on wooing Hispanics in this election.
Mr. Romney and Mr. Ryan gave a preview of their revised strategy – one aimed more directly at white working-class voters – during campaign stops in Michigan and Ohio. A Michigan native, Mr. Romney joked on Friday that no one had ever asked him for his birth certificate, a thinly-veiled nod to those in the GOP who harbour doubts that Mr. Obama was born in the United States.
On Saturday, Mr. Ryan waxed on about deer hunting and his Catholic faith. Catholics are a key Republican target this year, in the wake of Mr. Obama's move to force Catholic institutions to provide contraception coverage in their employee health plans. One of the policy's most vocal critics, Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, will give the convention's closing benediction after Mr. Romney's speech on Thursday.