MINNEAPOLIS — With Hurricane Gustav bearing down on the Gulf Coast, Sen. John McCain scrapped most of today's planned GOP convention activity, and organizers say the remaining three days could be heavily curtailed as well.
"This is a time when we have to do away with our party politics and we have to act as Americans," McCain said from St. Louis as Republicans gathered in Minneapolis-St. Paul to nominate him for the presidency.
Dispatching with the funny hats and red meat speeches expected at most political conventions, Republicans instead will gather at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul for about 2 1/2 hours this afternoon to conduct mandatory party business, such as calling the convention to order and seating the delegates.
President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney were supposed to headline opening night but canceled because of Gustav. The rest of the convention schedule will be considered day by day, and senior McCain adviser Rick Davis left open the possibility that the nominee might not even attend or might address the convention by satellite.
He wants to be there, Davis said, but "won't do anything deemed inappropriate."
The unprecedented last-minute shakeup of the schedule presents huge logistical problems, and affects not only normal convention activities like speeches, but also fundraising receptions, political meetings and a host of other events that took months to organize.
"At some point between Monday and Thursday evening, we will convene once again to complete the activities needed to qualify Senator McCain and Governor Palin for the ballot in all 50 states,'' Davis said. "Beyond that, all we can say is that we will monitor what is happening and make decisions about other convention business as details become available."
The schedule scrambling also underscored the logistical and political risks of a monster storm coinciding with the nominating convention. Every Republican gathered in the Twin Cities knows the political damage shouldered by President Bush over the federal government's widely criticized response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Republicans understand they could face a backlash for holding a four-day party amid a national disaster, and McCain is determined to look appropriately focused on the storm.
"I have every expectation that we will not see the mistakes of Katrina repeated," he said.
The Arizona senator and his new running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, toured a federal disaster relief center in Mississippi on Sunday, and he encouraged convention attendees and corporate sponsors to contribute to charities to help Gulf Coast residents.
The Republican convention comes on the heels of Democratic nominee Barack Obama's acceptance speech seen by almost 40-million people, and Republicans now face the prospect of getting far less publicity than Democrats did.
"I'm not sure whether it helps him or it hurts him,'' said Florida Republican Party chairman Jim Greer, applauding McCain's decision to scale back the convention. "I think it demonstrated leadership."
Gov. Charlie Crist, scheduled to speak Thursday night, was also unlikely to attend (though he is tentatively scheduled to appear Tuesday on Comedy Central's The Daily Show). Likewise, Republican Govs. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Haley Barbour of Mississippi and Rick Perry of Texas scrubbed plans to attend the convention.
Democrats also toned down the politics in deference to Gustav. The Democratic National Committee canceled a "More of the Same" anti-McCain rally planned for today, and Obama said in Ohio that his campaign will encourage support to help with relief efforts.
His campaign will be able to "get tons of volunteers to travel down there if it becomes necessary,'' he said.
In Minnesota, the typical party atmosphere of a convention has taken on a sober and uncertain mood.
The Florida Republican Party held a welcome reception for delegates Sunday night but canceled a Thursday night party, saying the money would instead be sent to help people in affected areas. A delegation breakfast scheduled for this morning to honor the GOP congressional delegation was changed to a prayer breakfast.
Floridians, of course, understand the seriousness of hurricanes better than most, so the sudden shift in convention plans caused little or no grumbling. Four years ago, much of the delegation left the convention in New York as Hurricane Frances threatened the state.
"The convention is important, but what's more important is the lives of people on the Gulf Coast,'' said Randy Maggard, a Republican activist from Zephyrhills. "This could dampen the mood, but we're all concerned when the Gulf Coast is going through difficult times."
State GOP chairman Greer said depending on what happens in the coming days, delegates may simply have to find ways to entertain themselves.
"The Mall of America will do well — until we all run out of money,'' Hillsborough GOP chairman David Storck quipped about the 4.2-million-square-foot mall across from the Florida delegation's hotel.
Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected] or (727)893-8241.