By Gregory Korte and John Bacon, USA TODAY
ST. PETERSBURG - Tropical Storm Isaac began blasting Florida's Keys with strong winds and torrential rains Sunday, primed to grow into a hurricane but apparently not directly targeting Tampa and the Republican National Convention.
One computer model at the National Hurricane Center has Isaac striking New Orleans on Wednesday - the seventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
"The storm is moving a little bit west" and the Tampa area likely won't take a direct hit, Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, said in a Sunday news conference. "I'm sure we're going to have a great convention."
Republicans promised to release an updated schedule for the convention Sunday, one day after canceling Monday's opening session. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus insisted the convention would go ahead as scheduled, albeit a day late and probably amid patches of heavy rain and wind.
"It (Isaac) is tracking in the opposite direction," Priebus told CNN's State of the Union. "We're 100% full steam ahead on Tuesday."
Forecasters said the storm could reach hurricane strength late Sunday. Scott said the storm appeared headed for landfall in Louisiana, Mississippi or Alabama later in the week. All were slammed hard by Katrina's devastation in 2005.
"It would be a very unfortunate track for that area" to be where Isaac hits shore, National Hurricane Center meteorologist James Franklin said.
The system is expected to move northward as it grows into a Category 2 hurricane. A Category 2 hurricane is capable of top sustained winds of 96 to 110 mph.
President Obama received a briefing on the potential storm and called Florida Gov. Rick Scott about federal-state cooperation.
Obama told Scott that the administration "would continue to make resources available as necessary to support the state as the Governor's team prepares for and responds to the storm," said a White House readout.
The Port of Miami, Port Everglades and the Port of Palm Beach all closed Sunday. Miami-Dade County locked down all its drawbridges. Palm Beach County opened three general population shelters.
The storm's center made landfall Saturday near the far-eastern tip of Cuba, downing trees and power lines. At least four people were reported dead in Haiti, including a 10-year-old girl who had a wall fall on her, according to the country's Civil Protection Office. The government also reported "considerable damage" to agriculture and homes. Nearly 8,000 people were evacuated from their houses or quake shelters and more than 4,000 were taken to temporary shelters.
In Tampa, the roll call of the states, which is the vote on the nomination of Mitt Romney, will happen Tuesday, a day later than planned. The convention is trying to accommodate all the previously announced speakers in a compressed schedule - which may mean earlier starts for the remaining three days.
"I think we will absolutely be able to get our message out," said Russ Schriefer, a strategist for the Romney campaign.
A three-day convention would put Republicans on par with the Democrats, who are shortening their convention from the traditional four days because of the Labor Day holiday Sept. 3. Republicans effectively had a three-day convention in 2008, both because of the Labor Day holiday and Hurricane Gustav threatening the Gulf Coast as they were gathering in Minneapolis.
Canceling the convention outright is not an option, party officials said. There's no suspense about whom the party will nominate, but the formality is legally necessary to get Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, on the ballot in all 50 states and the District of Columbia- and to begin spending campaign money designated for the general election.
The geography of the Tampa Bay region could make traveling for convention-goers and local residents a nightmare if Isaac hits.
Most of the convention activities are scheduled to take place at the Tampa Convention Center and the Tampa Bay Times Forum, both located near the water and in high-risk flood zones.
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said canceling the first night was "the appropriate decision." He said the biggest concern was transportation: In 40-mph winds, the Florida Highway Patrol would close the causeways from St. Petersburg, stranding more than half the delegates and guests at their hotels across the bay.
Buckhorn said the possibility of a storm did come up when Tampa bid for the convention two years ago, but the odds were in the city's favor. Tampa hasn't had a direct hit from a hurricane in 90 years.
"Hypothetically, you get a Category 3 coming up the bay, downtown is 15 feet under water. But that's never happened, it's not going to happen, and we're prepared if it does happen."
Buckhorn, a Democrat, said the storm could even help give the city a boost, giving convention-goers more time to enjoy the indoor events the city has to offer.
His message to delegates: "Enjoy a day off, spend money, have a hurricane party. We'll send the blenders."