TAMPA, Fla. – This is the convention prelude of the Republicans’ dreams — their nightmares, that is.

Mitt Romney wanted to preside over a made-for-TV gathering showcasing his economic credentials and GOP unity.

Instead, he’s heading to Tampa with the national debate focused on rape and abortion and with the divisions within his party – and with running mate Paul Ryan – on full display.

“It’s a huge distraction,” Saul Anuzis, a RNC member from Michigan and a top Romney backer, said of the emotional quarreling touched off by embattled Missouri Rep. Todd Akin earlier this week.

“We should be talking about the economy and here we are consumed by these side issues.”

Even the weather is threatening to spoil Romney’s party.

As Wednesday’s rain pounded the arena and hotel complex where the convention is scheduled for next week, Anuzis lamented the tropical storm churning toward Florida.

He said that “it could cause havoc; it could be a chaotic situation from a transportation and security standpoint.”

All this as a new Associated Press-GfK poll showed a neck-and-neck race between Romney and President Obama just over two months before the election.

Some 47 percent of registered voters say they plan to vote for Obama, while 46 percent favor Romney.

That’s virtually the same as last month — and evidence that Romney didn’t get a bounce of support by choosing Ryan as his vice presidential nominee.

Romney and Ryan sought to gain ground Wednesday with fresh criticism of Obama on health care in separate rallies and with a new TV ad.

But Republican troubles persisted, just as the party had seemed to be moving past deep divisions between its establishment and conservative wings in the name of rallying behind its presidential nominee and beating Obama.

Instead, the ticket found itself still overshadowed by the uproar over Akin’s refusal to drop out of his Senate race.

He caused a stir by saying that women’s bodies have ways of preventing pregnancies in cases of “legitimate rape.”

He has apologized repeatedly and has said he misspoke, but he also has bucked calls from top Republicans – including Romney and Ryan – to abandon his bid.

“It’s bad timing. Akin happening now sort of amplifies the whole thing,” Charlie Black, a veteran GOP presidential campaign strategist and informal Romney adviser, said, referring to distractions from the campaign’s economic message.

Romney spokesman Kevin Madden tried putting the matter to rest during a campaign stop in Arkansas, telling reporters he did not expect the presumptive nominee to address Akin’s comments further.

“We said what we needed to say,” Madden told reporters.

As final preparations were being made for the four-day convention, there were fears rippling through the national party that fallout from the Akin situation demonstrated weakness by the GOP leaders who are uniting behind Romney.

But Black and others predicted that the national conversation will shift back to the economy — and an unemployment rate above 8 percent — by the time Romney accepts the nomination Aug. 30, and certainly by this fall.

“I can’t imagine Obama running ads in suburban Pennsylvania in October tying Mitt Romney to Todd Akin,” said Black.

“If he does, it means we’re winning.”

And then there is one thing completely out of Romney’s control: Tropical Storm Isaac is bearing down on Florida, threatening to reach the Tampa area just as thousands of people are pouring into Tampa.

Convention officials say contingency plans are in place should the storm stay on its course for Tampa.

They are monitoring the storm but not yet contacting delegates about alternate plans.

 

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