Sunday, August 31, 2008

Sen. John McCain said the Republican National Convention will be retooled or reworked if the Gulf Coast’s worst fears come to pass on Hurricane Gustav, while the mayor of New Orleans prepared for that very event by ordering a mandatory evacuation of his city.

“It just wouldn’t be appropriate to have a festive occasion while a near-tragedy or a terrible challenge is presented in the form of a natural disaster,” Mr. McCain said Saturday in an interview taped for “Fox News Sunday.” “So we’re monitoring it from day to day, and I’m saying a few prayers, too.”

Mr. McCain and his newly picked running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, altered their campaign schedule and will visit Mississippi on Sunday at the invitation of the state’s Republican governor, Haley Barbour. The pair will travel to Jackson, Miss., to check on that state’s preparations and receive a briefing at the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency.

New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin began the most extreme preparation possible, ordering everyone in the city to start leaving Sunday. “We want everybody • we want 100 percent evacuation,” he said Saturday night.

Gustav is expected to become a monster Category 5 storm with 156 mph winds on Sunday, and its projected path suggests a landfall late Monday or early Tuesday on Louisiana’s central coast. The Republican convention is scheduled to open Monday in St. Paul, Minn.

A top McCain aide, Mark Salter, said the campaign is drawing up contingency plans for what to do about the convention, depending on when and where the storm hits. But he cautioned that it didn’t mean the gathering would be canceled.

“It might change what we do at the convention,” Mr. Salter said.

Republican Govs. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Charlie Crist of Florida, Mr. Barbour and Rick Perry of Texas all have decided to skip the convention outright or delay their appearances in Minnesota because of the storm.

McCain campaign manager Rick Davis will meet Sunday with officials in charge of the convention’s planning to review the latest news on Gustav, examine their options and then consult with Mr. McCain.

Republican National Committee Deputy Chairman Frank Donatelli told reporters in a conference call Saturday that “I don’t think [postponement] is a possibility.”

“To postpone a convention is much more difficult than you might think,” he said. “I do believe there are other methods to deal with that potential situation so that we recognize and show the gravity of the situation and still do our business.”

A White House spokeswoman said the possibility of President Bush not going to St. Paul is sufficient for contingency plans to be drawn up.

“We continue to track the path of the storm, and there is no scheduling change to speak of yet,” Dana Perino said in a conference call with reporters Saturday. “But, at the White House, we are making contingency plans should the president decide against traveling to Minnesota” for the convention.

The Bush administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, in which about 1,600 people died, was widely criticized as slow and inadequate, and a festive Bush speech coming the same night as another monster storm hits the Gulf Coast has major potential for political embarrassment.

On Friday, Mr. Bush preemptively declared states of emergency for Louisiana and Texas; he added Mississippi and Alabama on Saturday. Such a move is rarely taken before a disaster hits. The declaration clears the way for federal aid to supplement state and local efforts and formalizes coordination. The administration did the same thing before Katrina struck.

When asked about whether Mr. Bush should cancel his trip, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama said, “I don’t want to wade into the White House decision-making at this point. The main priority has to be making sure that everything is being done on the ground to avoid a repeat” of Katrina.

Mr. Obama said he wants to “do whatever is required that’s useful,” but the massive press corps and Secret Service detail who travel with him means that “sometimes we can be a distraction in these kinds of situations.”

A senior McCain source told CNN on Saturday that officials are considering turning the convention into a service event, a massive hurricane-aid telethon to raise money for the Red Cross and other agencies.

“He wants to do something service-oriented if and when the storm hits and [if] it’s as bad as it’s expected to be now,” the source said, adding that the campaign team hopes to get Mr. McCain to an aid station in a storm-affected area as soon as possible, likely Monday or Tuesday.

The most extreme possibility — canceling part of the four-day gathering — would be decided only at the last second, Republican Party officials told CNN. But the logistics of such a decision being made is being discussed.

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