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TAMPA — As wind and rain lashed this city on the Gulf of Mexico, Ohio delegates to the Republican National Convention holed up in their hotel on Monday listening not to soaring party rhetoric to kick off the 2012 Republican convention, but to talk shop, listen to party cheerleaders, and reminisce about the late Neil Armstrong.
Ohio's 126 delegates and alternates, along with several hundred "honorary delegates," spouses, friends, and elected officials from Ohio, were reminded again and again Monday of the key role Ohio is likely to have in determining the 2012 presidential election.
"You have two really big, nationally important assignments this fall," Newt Gingrich, the former House Speaker from Georgia, told the Ohio delegates during one of several sessions at the Mainsail Suites Hotel nine miles from downtown Tampa.
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"We have to carry the race for president and we have to win the Senate race," he said referring to the contest between Sen. Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio) and Republican challenger Josh Mandel.
"I hope all of you are going to go home and campaign as if the country's future depends on it, because the country's future depends on it," he said.
Ohio is considered one of a handful of swing states where the outcome of the election could be decided. A poll released Monday by the Columbus Dispatch put former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, and President Obama at 45 percent each, with a margin of error of 2.1 percent, leaving 10 percent of the Ohio electorate up for grabs.
Delegates might have thought they were in Tampa to select and cheer on their party's nominee, Mr. Romney, which they will do when the remaining days of the convention begin in earnest today at 2 p.m.
To the political professionals from Ohio, the convention is an opportunity to turn supporters into post-convention political volunteers working phone banks and walking door-to-door. To demonstrate how easy it is, the party set up a phone bank in the hotel and put delegates to work.
The Democratic National Convention follows next week in Charlotte, with the expected nomination of President Obama for a second term.
The GOP convention was supposed to start Monday afternoon, but convention leaders during the weekend decided to put it off until today because of fears of the approaching Tropical Storm Isaac.
Even as it appeared Isaac would leave Tampa unscathed, rumors abounded that the convention would be extended by a day or even canceled to avoid having the party's nomination celebration juxtaposed with a hurricane making a devastating landfall in Mississippi or Louisiana.
The theme of the first day was going to be "We Can Do Better."
"It's better off to be safe than sorry. I think that's what the convention was trying to do," said Ohio GOP Chairman Robert Bennett. "In retrospect, I think we could have got a session in today."
At a breakfast meeting, thoughts of the late Ohio astronaut Neil Armstrong replaced those of politics.
U.S. Sen. Rob Portman (R., Ohio) recalled the late Mr. Armstrong of Wapakoneta, Ohio, who died Saturday, as someone who aroused deep feelings during his somewhat rare appearances.
Mr. Armstrong was 82 when he died of complications from heart surgery.
During a breakfast event for about 350 people, Mr. Portman recalled being invited to a dedication ceremony 10 years ago in Mason, Ohio, to which he brought Mr. Armstrong, but only under assurances to Mr. Armstrong that there would be no advance publicity.
Mr. Portman said that when the audience finally figured out that his introduction was about Neil Armstrong, the response was electric.
"I have never seen a response from a crowd like that. People were just amazed. They all jumped to their feet and gave him a standing ovation. Neil, being the modest, humble Ohioan that he was, was overwhelmed," Mr. Portman said.
Mr. Portman also related a story from Tom Moe, a Vietnam Air Force veteran and now state director of Veterans Affairs who was a prisoner of the North Vietnamese with John McCain in 1969.
Mr. Portman said the North Vietnamese captors never wanted the prisoners to hear any good news about the United States.
One of Mr. Moe's fellow prisoners got a letter from his mother and the Vietnamese guards had failed to notice the postage stamp, which depicted Mr. Armstrong setting foot on the moon.
"He said, ‘when we saw that postage stamp, and we heard about it through our communication system through the prison it gave all of us inspiration and strength,'?" said Mr. Portman, who was with Mr. Moe and Mr. Armstrong at his swearing-in to the U.S. Senate in 2011.
Mr. Moe, who is an alternative delegate to the convention, confirmed the story.
"It was a very moving moment for all three of us," Mr. Moe said.
Mr. Gingrich, acting in the role of a college professor, told the delegation that recent innovations in extracting oil and natural gas have turned energy into a positive, instead of a declining resource that has to be managed.
"We have had in energy a comparable breakthrough. It gives us the opportunity to break loose, to suddenly change the world," he said, equating the amount of oil now available under Ohio through hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," and other technologies to that in Alaska's North Slope.
Kellyanne Conway, president of Polling Group Inc., and an associate of Mr. Gingrich, made the argument that opinion polls show Ohioans want to see domestic energy exploited if it would be good for the economy and national security.
"Unlike a lot of political talk today, where folks are talking about crisis and scarcity, energy provides just the opposite — a matter of abundance and opportunity," Ms. Conway said. "If you give people a choice on whether they want to hug a tree or hug their wallet, they go for the wallet every time."
Delegates also heard from Ari Fleischer, who was press secretary under President George W. Bush, and Josh Romney, the third of five sons of Mitt and Ann Romney.
The younger Mr. Romney claimed his father has supporters around the world.
"We [the United States] have such a huge impact all over the world and people all around the world recognize the importance of this election, getting someone like my dad elected who understands the greatest hope for peace all around the world is a strong America, a strong military, and a strong economy."
Mr. Fleischer also stopped by to help entertain the hotel-bound delegates.
In joking about what he sees as a record of failure under President Obama, Mr. Fleischer said, "in 2012 he changed his re-election motto from ‘change is coming' to ‘chains are coming.'?"
That was a reference to a statement by Vice President Joe Biden in a Virginia campaign event Aug. 14 in which he told an audience with many blacks in it that the Romney campaign wants to "put y'all back in chains."
Campaigning in Danville, Mr. Biden said the Republican ticket wanted to "unchain Wall Street" by getting rid of regulations President Obama signed into law two years ago.
Mr. Romney criticized the remark as reckless.
Mr. Biden said he meant to say "unshackled," but did not apologize and mocked the Romney campaign for showing outrage.
Lucas County Republican Party Chairman Jon Stainbrook was forced to postpone his trip to Tampa where he is a Romney delegate, and likely will miss the trip altogether.
Mr. Stainbrook said he is required to testify in a hearing in front of the Ohio State Personnel Board of Review in a wrongful termination complaint filed last November against the Lucas County Board of Elections.
Former board employees Dennis Lange and Kelly Mettler claim they were fired in retaliation for investigating allegations centering on whether some supporters of Mr. Stainbrook, during his 2010 tumultuous contest for county chairman, lived in the precincts they claimed.
Nothing came of the investigation, and Mr. Stainbrook denied it was a factor in their terminations in August, 2011.
"I'm devastated," Mr. Stainbrook said. "I was just totally set to do this."
Contact Tom Troy at email@example.com or 419-724-6058.