ST. PAUL, Minn. — The months of painstaking preparation and millions of dollars spent to put on a successful Republican National Convention may be washed away by Hurricane Gustav.
And in the end, it could be good news for John McCain.
As odd as it seems with the somber tone and truncated schedule for the convention's opening Monday, the reaction to Gustav by Republicans underscores exactly what McCain wants to convey: He's a leader who puts country above party, and he's nothing like the George W. Bush who was caught so flat-footed after Hurricane Katrina three years ago.
"I think it's working to McCain's advantage because once again he's showing that leadership counts. He's right on top of this and willing to make a personal sacrifice of a party for what's good for the country,'' said Tampa developer Al Austin, a top Republican fundraiser.
Rather than speech after speech from Washington Republicans, America's TV screens have been filled with images of Gulf Coast governors focused on the job at hand. Those governors include rising national GOP stars like Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Charlie Crist of Florida.
"As I traveled our state in the days following Fay's landfall, I was reminded again of the resilience and strength of our people, the kindness they extended to one another. Neighbor helping neighbor, asking not what party you are but instead how you can help," Crist said in a videotaped address that aired for delegates Monday, along with clips from the other Gulf Coast governors.
Even revelations that the 17-year-old daughter of McCain's running mate, Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska, is pregnant didn't look like a major problem. Republicans naturally looked forward to four days of pumping up McCain and tearing down Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama. But given how badly damaged the Republican brand is these days, McCain may well be better off without a four-day commercial for the GOP. There's a reason why many of the most vulnerable Republican incumbents in Congress, including Tom Feeney of Oviedo, skipped the convention altogether.
Obama argues that voting for McCain is akin to voting for a third Bush term. So McCain surely can't be too disappointed that President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney scrubbed speeches that had been planned for prime time Monday night.
Instead, Laura Bush and Cindy McCain gave brief speeches urging people to help storm victims.
"You're clearly in an anti-incumbent election environment. Congress has a 9 percent approval rating, the American voter is feeling jaded and cynical and pessimistic about their elected officials,'' said Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Bartow. "I hope that they will be relieved to see that this convention is appropriately shifting its focus and putting the country first, to borrow a McCain campaign expression, even at the expense at the kind of mo' you'd like to see coming out of a Republican convention.''
McCain may not get much of a lift from a convention overshadowed by storms, but between Gustav and McCain's surprise pick of Palin, Obama likely had his bounce diminished, too. A new CBS national poll found Obama's lead had grown from three points to eight points after the Democratic National Convention last week, but a CNN poll showed the race was a statistical tie.
If McCain hoped to use the convention to fire up party activists and the conservative base, that became unnecessary because the selection of Palin already accomplished that. A staunch social conservative, Palin remains a giant question mark, but most delegates in St. Paul are ecstatic to have her on the ticket.
"All of the doubts about McCain from the hard core conservatives are erased,'' said Pasco GOP chairman Bill Bunting, predicting that she could get activists as enthusiastic as they were for Bush-Cheney in 2004. "She'll turn out the conservative base, and they're the ones that work the hardest."
Republican activists are sounding as excited as they've been in months. Republican leaders are showing competence and empathy, and McCain no longer has to fret so much about how his acceptance speech will be compared to Obama's.
Even without a full-fledged convention, this could still be a good week for McCain.
Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893‑8241.