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TAMPA, Florida (AP) — The foreshortened Republican National Convention to nominate Mitt Romney as the party’s challenger to President Barack Obama will be gaveled in to session for just 10 minutes Monday in a largely empty hall, a symbolic opening as party delegates stay hunkered down elsewhere to wait out a dangerous hurricane-season storm.

Republicans effectively cancelled the first day of their planned four-day jamboree, a quadrennial pivot point aimed at repairing party unity after a bruising primary season to pick their nominee and the start of the fall campaign before the Nov. 6 election.

Polls show Obama holding a small lead going into the convention, after months of a contest that has seen the once-politically moderate Romney voicing deeply conservative positions on key issues.

Related: Obama retains a narrow lead over Romney

Romney aides see the convention as an opportunity to cast the nominee as a determined leader with the know-how to fix the economy, the key issue among voters after years of a weak recovery and continued high unemployment after the Great Recesssion.

Aides also want to introduce Romney as a family figure — with Romney’s wife Ann taking a prime speaking role Tuesday night — to counter the Democrat attempts to brand him as a ruthless titan of the business world.

The unity the Republicans want, however, was brutally rocked in the final August days before the convention by the words of one of their Senate candidates about rape and abortion. The incendiary comment left Romney unable to sharpen the campaign focus on the weak economy and 8.3 percent national unemployment.

Rep. Todd Akin, the Republican candidate for a Senate seat from Missouri, unleashed his own political storm with remarks that claimed women’s bodies have ways of avoiding pregnancy from a “legitimate” rape. He was defending his stance that abortion should not be available even to victims of rape or incest.

Romney and other party leaders criticized those statements and urged Akin to drop out of the Senate race. Akin, a favorite of Christian conservatives, apologized for his remarks, but has refused to step aside.

Democrats jumped on those remarks as further proof of their contention that the Republicans were waging a “war on women.”

Not fair, Romney said in a Fox News interview broadcast Sunday.

“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,” Romney said, as he claimed the Obama campaign had sunk to a sad new low in the bitter election race. Romney conceded, however, that the controversy over Akin’s remarks “hurts our party.”

Obama hasn’t explicitly linked Romney to Akin, but he said in an interview with The Associated Press that his opponent has locked himself into “extreme positions” on economic and social issues and would surely impose them if elected president.

Democrats have latched onto the controversy, noting not only what Akin said but also his opposition to abortion in all cases, a position held by many Republicans, including Romney’s vice presidential pick, Rep. Paul Ryan.

Obama holds a significant lead among women voters as he does with Hispanics, who will be crucial to the outcome in key states that may decide the outcome of the Nov. 6 election.

Romney is struggling with the Hispanic vote, given his backing for the party’s harsh position on dealing with illegal immigrants. He suggested in primary debates that those here illegally would find, under a Romney presidency, conditions that would cause them to “self-deport.” The implication was that a Romney government would make it so difficult for illegal immigrants to find work that they would voluntarily return to their homelands.

Both Romney and Obama spent the weekend away from the rigors of campaigning. Romney was preparing his acceptance speech for the final day of the convention. Obama was gearing up for campaigning this week on college campuses across Iowa, Colorado and Virginia — all so-called swing states where polls show voters are not solidly in the camp of one candidate or the other.

The U.S. president is not chosen according to the nationwide popular vote but in state-by-state contests. Of the 50 states, about 43 are already viewed as settled upon Romney or Obama, meaning the outcome in seven states — including those Obama visits this week — likely will decide which man sits in the White House for the next four years.

At the symbolic 10-minute opening session of the Republican gathering Monday, party officials intend to launch a debt clock set to zero to show how much the government will borrow during the convention week alone. The party hammers Obama for running up government red ink to record levels

Officials did not rule out further changes because of the weather, and sidestepped when asked what might happen if, as seemed possible, the storm made landfall in the New Orleans area on the seventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. That storm killed 1,800 people and devastated the city.

Despite concerns about the weather, a mammoth pre-convention celebration went on as planned Sunday night, attended by thousands of delegates and others who flocked to the Rays major league baseball stadium turned into a party venue in nearby St. Petersburg.

Ryan, the party’s vice presidential candidate, was expected to receive a huge send-off Monday in his hometown of Janesville, Wisconsin.

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said Romney’s nomination would take place on Tuesday, as would approval of a conservative party platform.

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Associated Press writers Steven R. Hurst, Brian Bakst, Philip Elliott, Steve Peoples and Ken Thomas contributed to this report.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.