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Bush, Cheney to skip GOP convention

- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 31, 2008

ST. PAUL, Minn. — The Republican National Convention will go on in a truncated fashion in light of Hurricane Gustav, and without President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.

The White House Sunday morning announced neither Mr. Bush nor Mr. Cheney would attend — both men were scheduled to speak Monday night — though first lady Laura Bush still will attend. Mr. Bush will fly to Texas to visit emergency preparedness center, but will not visit Louisiana to avoid interrupting that state's preparations.

In Minnesota, a senior Republican official said the convention will go on but without some of the usual pomp and circumstance, and without any of the usual opening-night speeches.

"The likeliest scenario is that Gustav strikes on Monday and we hold all our business sessions but nothing else on Monday," the official said after taking part in a high-level discussions among convention planners.

Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain visited a hurricane command center in Jackson, Miss., on Sunday morning and said the convention cannot go on in the manner scheduled.

"We must redirect our efforts from the really celebratory event of the nomination of president and vice president of our party to acting as all Americans," he told reporters. "Well change our program and Ill be announcing details of it in the next few hours. But theres very little doubt that we have to go from a party event to a call to the nation for action, action to help our fellow citizens in this time of tragedy and disaster, action in the form of volunteering, donations, reaching out our hands and our hearts and our wallets to the people who are under such great threat from this great natural disaster."

The formal nominations of the Arizona senator and his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, will take place on national television.

But there will not be the conventional balloon drop, said the official, who is not empowered by the convention to speak to the press.

The official noted that both Mr. McCain and Mrs. Palin are going to be with Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour in Jackson and could concievably give acceptance speeches from there or elsewhere if necessary, but are still more likely to fly here for the speeches.

"They don't have to be in the convention hall to accept the nominations," the official said.

McCain campaign manager Rick Davis and Republican officials met Sunday to determine what to do about the convention, but Mr. McCain vowed that politics would stay out of the hurricane response.

"I pledge that tomorrow night, and if necessary, throughout our convention if necessary, to act as Americans not Republians, because America needs us now no matter whether we are Republican or Democrat," Mr. McCain said.

With Republican delegates streaming into St. Paul, Minn. for the marquee event, McCain officials said they may ask that more public-service elements be added and that pep-rally segments be reduced or canceled. GOP officials were in round-the-clock meetings as they tracked the storm.

Mr. Bush was harshly criticized after Hurricane Katrina slammed into New Orleans in August 2005 because he stuck to a schedule that took him from his ranch in Texas on a two-day trip to Arizona and California, where photographers snapped pictures of him smiling and strumming a guitar backstage at one event.

From there, he flew over New Orleans — which Democrats said showed how out of touch he was — on his way back to Washington and did not visit the region until five days after.

After a briefing Sunday from Federal Emergency Management Agency officials, Mr. Bush urged residents to heed local officials' order to evacuate.

"Do not put yourselves in harm's way or make rescue workers take unnecessary risks," he said. "And know that the American people stand with you. We'll face this emergency together." Mr. Bush said he had been assured that New Orleans' levees are "stronger than they have ever been," but that there is a "serious risk of significant flooding" across the Gulf Coast, especially in that city.

"The message to the people of the Gulf Coast is this storm is dangerous," he said, adding that he would not go to New Orleans for now because, "I do not want my visit to impede in any way the response of our emergency personnel."

Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama also said that unlike Mr. McCain, he would not travel to the region just now.

"A big storm like this raises bipartisan concerns and I think for John to want to find out what's going on is fine," he said. "The thing that I always am concerned about in the middle of a storm is whether we're drawing resources away from folks on the ground because the secret service and various security requirements sometimes it pulls police, fire and other departments away from concentrating on the job. I'm assuming that where he went that wasn't an issue."

Mr. McCain, who was a fierce critic of the federal response to Hurricane Katrina, was optimistic about the government's preparations, saying "I think that we are far, far better prepared than we were the last time."

Cancellations by major speakers came as Republicans quickly altered the tone of the convention. None of the five Gulf state governors planned to attend. Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney had been scheduled to address Republicans on Monday.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino told reporters "we are working on alternate plans," which include the pair addressing the RNC via satellite.

Mr. Bush began work early on Sunday, meeting with top aides on Hurricane Gustav.

The president received updates from disaster relief officials and state and local representatives late Sunday morning. After visiting the Federal Emergency Management Agency's operations center, Mr. Bush was expected to make a statement about the situation later on Sunday.

In a telephone call to New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin, Mr. Bush said he was checking in and getting ready to go through this again with him, Mrs. Perino said. Mr. Nagin told Mr. Bush the forecast did not look good, but that he was pleased so far with the coordination with the federal government.

Mr. Bush asked Mr. Nagin if residents were heeding the evacuation notice, and the mayor said they were. Cable news programs showed miles of cars inching along highways as they left the city.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who planned to remain in Baton Rouge, La., for the duration of the storm, said Sunday that coordination among response officials was much better than it was during Katrina.

But he acknowledged some shortcomings so far, including buses that had yet to arrive at evacuation points and last-minute decisions by hospitals to move critically ill patients out of the storm's way. Gustav is going to be, in some ways, more challenging than Katrina, Mr. Chertoff said.

Joseph Curl reported from the campaign trail with Mr. McCain.