TAMPA, Fla. — Mitt Romney accused President Barack Obama's campaign of trying to link him to Rep. Todd Akin's statements about rape and abortion, calling that a sad new low in the bitter election race while conceding that controversy over the remarks is hurting the Republican Party.
Romney's comments were broadcast Sunday as Republicans poured into Florida prepared to cram four days of nominating convention events into three because of the threat caused by Tropical Storm Isaac.
Railing about a Democratic campaign they cast as harshly negative — as the Democrats say about the GOP — Romney and Republicans sought to reach out to female voters and Hispanics — two voting blocs that polls show favor Obama. Top Republicans said it was crucial that the party broaden its appeal for the November election and for longer-term political viability.
Akin's remarks dogged the GOP as delegates and party officials gathered in this Florida city nervously eyeing overcast skies for the impending storm. Republicans scrambled to reconfigure their schedule, postponing the bulk of events that had been scheduled for Monday's opening.
Akin is the GOP Missouri Senate candidate who said women's bodies have ways of avoiding pregnancy from a "legitimate" rape. Romney and other GOP leaders have criticized those statements and urged Akin to drop out of the Senate race.
Asked in an interview, recorded earlier, on "Fox News Sunday" about what the questioner said were Obama campaign efforts to link Akin's remarks to Romney and other Republicans, Romney said: "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 the controversy over Akin "hurts our party and I think is damaging to women."
He said that as Massachusetts governor, he had helped women by guaranteeing coverage for them — and men as well — by enacting that state's health care legislation. Romney has pledged that as president he would repeal Obama's health care overhaul law — which is similar to the Massachusetts statute — but Romney said he was proud of his accomplishment at the state level.
Obama hasn't explicitly linked Romney to Akin, but he said in an interview with The Associated Press that the GOP candidate has locked himself into "extreme positions" on economic and social issues and would surely impose them if elected president.
In a Web ad, the Democratic National Committee spliced together images of Romney and Paul Ryan, Akin's interview in which he made the comments and various news reports, with the question, "Where does the GOP stand on the issue of women's health?"
The ad's final image is the Romney-Ryan campaign logo with Akin's name added.
The Democratic Party, in fundraising appeals, has sought to tie the Romney-Paul Ryan ticket to Akin.
"Now, Akin's choice of words isn't the real issue here. The real issue is a Republican Party — led by Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan — whose policies on women and their health are dangerously wrong," said a recent letter from Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chairwoman of the Democratic Party.
Separately, Republican National Party Chairman Reince Priebus said Akin's insistence on staying in the Missouri Senate race could cost the party its chance to win control of the Senate.
Priebus said Akin "should put the mission of liberty and freedom ahead of himself" and leave the race.
Akin has ignored calls from national GOP leaders to leave the race against incumbent Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill. Republicans hope to pick off her seat and capture a Senate majority in the November elections. Priebus commented Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union."
On the eve of the convention, the Romney campaign released a new ad using Obama's words on Medicare cuts from the 2008 campaign. The ad, with the catchphrase, "It ain't right," criticizes the $700 billion in Medicare cuts in Obama's health care law.
Meanwhile, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Romney must effectively reach women and Hispanics if he is to oust Obama in the November election.
Speaking on NBC's "Meet the Press," the former GOP presidential candidate said Romney must convince women and Hispanics that "jobs and the economy are more important perhaps than other issues."
Former Florida GOP Gov. Jeb Bush had a similar message about the Hispanic vote, saying on NBC, "Gov. Romney can make inroads if he focuses on how do we create a climate of job creation and economic growth."
Bush, who has long urged his party to craft a more conciliatory message to Hispanics, added: "We've got to have a better tone going forward over the long haul for sure. You can't ask people to join your cause and then send a signal that 'you're really not wanted.' It just doesn't work."
As aides in Tampa scrambled, Romney was taking a rare day off the campaign trail at his lakeside vacation home in New Hampshire, receiving updates on the storm and making final preparations for the Thursday speech with which he will accept his party's presidential nomination. The campaign said he was working with a teleprompter.
"The safety of those in Isaac's path is of the utmost importance," Romney tweeted after Republican officials announced Saturday that they had postponed almost all of Monday's convention proceedings until Tuesday.
Though the storm appeared to be on a track that would pass well west of Tampa, storm surges and flooding from Isaac were still possible, and convention organizers said they were making contingency plans to move delegates who had been booked into beachfront hotels to other locations if necessary. They indicated the schedule shift also was meant to prevent overburdening emergency response personnel at the height of the storm.
The Republican Party planned to break from the political speeches to honor astronaut Neil Armstrong with a video tribute. Armstrong died Saturday.
With Isaac nearing, Obama dispatched the Federal Emergency Management Agency to establish a command center and move more resources into the state.
The White House said Sunday that Obama told FEMA to coordinate closely with officials in states and localities in the path of the storm. Obama also told Florida Gov. Rick Scott that federal officials are prepared to help ensure the safety of those attending the convention.
Republicans hope to use this week's convention to cast Romney as a determined leader with the know-how to fix the country's economy. They also want to introduce him as a family figure to counter the image of him as a ruthless businessman as Democrats have sought to brand him.
The convention gives the GOP the opportunity to send a message of unity roughly two months before the election. But onetime presidential candidate Rep. Ron Paul signaled that he wasn't onboard.
In an interview with The New York Times, the Texas congressman said convention officials had said he could speak at the event if he allowed the Romney campaign to review his remarks beforehand and if he delivered a full-throated endorsement of the candidate.
"It wouldn't be my speech," Paul said. "That would undo everything I've done in the last 30 years. I don't fully endorse him for president."
Paul was anticipating thousands at a University of South Florida rally on Sunday.
Obama was due to travel next week to college towns in Iowa, Colorado and Virginia to court young voters. The president's nomination for a second term is to come next week in Charlotte, N.C.
The Democrat picked up the endorsement of former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, the Republican-turned-independent who lost the 2010 Senate race to Republican Marco Rubio.
In an article in the Tampa Bay Times, Crist called Obama the "right leader" for the state and the country. He criticized what he said was his former party's move to the right, saying it "has failed to demonstrate the kind of leadership or seriousness voters deserve."
Associated Press writers Philip Elliott and Steve Peoples in New Hampshire and Ken Thomas and Matthew Daly in Washington contributed to this report.