As two powerful storms churn ominously in the Atlantic, Republicans face a tough call: delay next week's convention in Minneapolis-St. Paul, or risk being drowned out by a weather disaster.
Tropical Storm Gustav is threatening to strike Louisiana early next week as a dangerous Category 3 hurricane. As Mississippi and Louisiana declared states of emergencies Thursday, a spokesman for John McCain's campaign said a delayed convention is possible.
"We are monitoring the situation very closely," Tucker Bounds told foxnews.com.
The risk for Republicans is great. The timing and path of Gustav invite reminders of Hurricane Katrina, the killer storm that struck New Orleans three years ago today, leading to the disastrous scene outside the Louisiana Superdome and what's widely considered an enormous failure of the Bush White House.
And after Gustav comes Hanna, a tropical storm that also could become a hurricane. It may be a threat to the southeastern U.S. coast, and possibly Florida.
"I'm not going anywhere. Not for now," Gov. Charlie Crist said Thursday as he headed to the National Hurricane Center in Miami. "Job 1 is to fight for and protect the people of Florida, especially when these storms come our way."
Crist already had planned to delay his convention arrival to stay close to cleanup efforts from Tropical Storm Fay. Now he is checking to see if he can give his prime-time Thursday speech live by satellite from Florida.
White House press secretary Dana Perino said that President Bush still plans to deliver a keynote speech Monday, the opening night of the convention, and that it was premature to speculate about whether he would change his plans.
If the convention goes on as planned, America could be treated to a split-screen image of Republicans partying while people flee homes or clean up from storms. A big hurricane also would force national news organizations to divert their gaze from the convention to scenes of destruction, spoiling McCain's big TV moment.
For CNN anchor Anderson Cooper, the decision to skip the GOP convention was a no-brainer. When forecasters saw that Hurricane Gustav might threaten the Gulf Coast, Cooper was ready to travel straight from covering the Democratic National Convention in Denver to the French Quarter.
"I'm not torn at all … there's plenty of reporters covering the Republican convention," said Cooper, who made a mark with incisive reporting on the failure of government to respond well to Katrina. "Whether the storm hits New Orleans or anywhere along the Gulf Coast, we've been committed to telling the continuing story (there) since Katrina. It's an important part of our continuing coverage."
At Fox News Channel, vice president of new editorial product Jay Wallace still remembers producing anchor Shepard Smith's emotional Katrina coverage from New Orleans. But he said Gustav is still too far away — forecasters' cone of uncertainty stretched from Louisiana to the Florida Panhandle on Thursday night — to make concrete plans for deploying big name anchors.
"We know that conventions these days are mostly for show,'' Wallace said. "If we have a major news event, we're not going to be able to turn away from a major storm hitting the Gulf Coast three years after Katrina."
Political journalists such as Brit Hume and Chris Wallace would remain in Minneapolis-St. Paul regardless of the storm's impact.
Kate O'Brian, senior vice president of news for ABC, echoed Wallace's assessment, saying executives probably won't decide until early next week whether prime-time coverage of the GOP convention would be affected by Gustav reports.
Republicans Philip and Sharon Chauffe are native New Orleanians who lost two homes to Katrina and are still rebuilding. They said that if a storm makes landfall while Bush is addressing the GOP convention, it could translate to an opportunity to undo some of the political damage he did here in 2005.
"Would we be offended?" asked Sharon Chauffe, 58. "If he mentions Katrina and New Orleans and Louisiana, and puts a big emphasis on it, then I wouldn't be."
Republican Party of Florida chairman Jim Greer, who's in St. Paul, said he has not heard talk of a convention delay. Al Austin, a Tampa developer, leading GOP fundraiser and Florida delegate, said any postponement would wreak havoc on travel plans of thousands of delegates.
"Do you stop life because of weather? You have to work around these things," Austin said. "I know it's a tough call, but the alternatives are worse. ... I don't know how you reschedule a convention."
Austin was chairman of an effort to bring the 2008 GOP convention to Tampa, which failed, he said, in part because the site selection panel was worried about Florida's vulnerability to hurricanes.
Every governor in Gustav's potential path is a Republican: Crist, Rick Perry of Texas, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Haley Barbour of Mississippi and Bob Riley of Alabama.
Former Gov. Jeb Bush established the standard for official behavior during hurricanes: Stay put, because not much else matters. After Hurricane Charley in 2004, Bush skipped the GOP convention in New York City, where his brother was nominated for a second term.
"The work here is real important that we get it right," Jeb Bush said at the time. "This is what I got elected to do."
As of 4 p.m. Thursday, more than 18,000 insurance claims in Florida had been submitted as a result of Tropical Storm Fay, and the state issued a warning to Panhandle-area beachgoers that Gustav could produce deadly rip currents this weekend.
Staff writers Eric Deggans and Rebecca Catalanello contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.
mccain, veep choice to appear today
Republican presidential candidate John McCain decided on a running mate early Thursday, and one top prospect, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, abruptly canceled numerous public appearances.
The Arizona senator will appear with his No. 2 at an Ohio rally today, aides said, though they provided no details on McCain's pick.
Without explanation, Pawlenty called off an Associated Press interview at the last minute, as well as other media interviews in Denver, site of the Democratic National Convention.
Others believed to be in contention for the No. 2 slot on the GOP ticket included former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who was meeting with donors throughout California, and Democrat-turned-independent Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who was vacationing on New York's Long Island.
Former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, too, was still a possibility, as was the idea that McCain would choose a dark horse from any number of names that have circulated.
McCain, for his part, was uncharacteristically silent.
As he and his wife, Cindy, boarded a plane in Phoenix bound for Dayton, Ohio, reporters shouted a barrage of questions at the senator about whether he'd made up his mind. McCain wasn't biting. He flashed a double thumbs-up and boarded the plane.