By THOMAS BEAUMONT
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, saying 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 Barack 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 after causing 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."
For now at least, Akin's comments have caused a furor in the Republican Party just as it's trying to narrow the advantage Obama and the Democrats have among women voters. And the debate has highlighted fissures within the GOP over when abortion should be legal. Romney does not oppose abortion in cases of rape and incest or if it will save a mother's life, while Ryan does oppose abortion in cases of rape and incest.
Underscoring the split, the Republican National Committee is including support in its draft platform for a ban on abortion without noting specific exceptions. The plank leaves exceptions up to states, but also stops short of listing rape or incest.
Ryan himself stoked the debate Wednesday when he was forced to emphasize anew that Romney is the nominee, brushing aside differences in their records.
"I'm proud of my pro-life record. And I stand by my pro-life record in Congress. It's something I'm proud of. But Mitt Romney is the top of the ticket and Mitt Romney will be president and he will set the policy of the Romney administration," Ryan told a Pennsylvania TV station.
He also defended a bill he cosponsored in the House to ban federal funding for abortion except in cases of incest and "forcible" rape. That language, which was eventually changed, would have narrowed the exception for rape victims. Akin and 225 other members of the House, including 11 Democrats, also cosponsored the bill.
Romney's campaign rejected the idea that the Akin issue was overshadowing the party's effort to stir enthusiasm in its base membership. And advisers said they weren't worried that Missouri, a state Obama lost in 2008, would suddenly become competitive when it's long been considered a state Romney was virtually assured of winning.
But Akin's refusal to quit his race gave rise to GOP fears in other states. Senate GOP officials were deeply concerned that the Missouri congressman might be jeopardizing the party's chances of winning control the 100-seat chamber in a close-fought year. Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, finishing her first term, was considered the Senate's most vulnerable Democrat until Akin's remarks this week.
Democrats were working to use Akin to go after Republicans at all levels.
"It's not just one extreme candidate in Missouri; it's part of a Republican pattern," says an ad supporting Massachusetts Democrat Elizabeth Warren in her Senate race against Republican Sen. Scott Brown. Brown is urging Akin to step aside.
There were other issues beyond Akin and abortion threatening Romney's convention.
The RNC's platform committee has adopted budget language similar to Ryan's House federal spending blueprint, which calls for turning Medicare into a voucher system. That issue again spotlights the differences between the two Republicans, and splits in the party.
At the same time, Democrats were making plans to try to steal some of the limelight from Romney next week.
Obama has arranged to campaign in Iowa, Colorado and Virginia. Biden is planning to campaign in Florida - including in Tampa - early next week, and Michelle Obama is to appear on David Letterman's show on Aug. 29, the third day of the GOP convention.
And 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.