- The Washington Times - Monday, September 1, 2008

ST. PAUL, Minn. | Sen. John McCain on Sunday canceled most events on the opening day of the Republican National Convention and promised no political rhetoric, taking an unprecedented step as both major political parties scaled back their schedules to allow the Gulf Coast to prepare for Hurricane Gustav.

Three years after Hurricane Katrina brought disaster to New Orleans and political grief to President Bush, Mr. McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, said Monday’s session would be cut to about two hours and the schedule for the rest of the week was undecided.

Mr. McCain gives up a full day of valuable public attention, but Republicans said it was the only choice he could make out of respect for those in the hurricane’s path.

“We take off our Republican hats and put on our American hats, and we say, ‘America, we’re with you. America, we’re going to care for these people in their time of need,’” Mr. McCain said in canceling the opening-day speeches, including those of President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.

Mr. Bush said he would travel to Texas to monitor preparedness procedures, though he wouldn’t visit Louisiana because he didn’t want to disrupt operations where the hurricane was expected to hit.

Democrats canceled protest activities here for Sunday and Monday.

The McCain campaign refused to talk about the political fallout. “We really don’t have the luxury of sort of trying to evaluate the politics of this kind of situation,” said campaign manager Rick Davis.

Convention delegates and political analysts were deeply divided on the implications.

“It is a loss that McCain doesn’t have multiple hours of TV of talented speakers saying great things about him and [vice-presidential candidate Sarah] Palin and warning people about the liberal policies” of Democratic nominee Barack Obama, said Republican lobbyist and former White House aide Ed Rogers.

“Could he earn some respect from a broad audience by handling this in a nonpolitical and respectful manner? Maybe. We will have to wait and see.”

The campaign said that even Mr. McCain’s acceptance speech slated for Thursday is uncertain. One option would be to address delegates via video, though the McCain campaign said it prefers that the candidate be at the convention.

“The convention’s going to be handled on a day-by-day basis,” said House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican and chairman of the convention. “We can deal with our convention and deal with our message, and will in a way that puts [Gulf Coast residents] first.”

Still, he acknowledged that the campaign is in a difficult position.

“It’s kind of hard to talk about the message of the convention or the message of the fall campaign given what we’re dealing with,” Mr. Boehner said.

The Bush administration was lambasted for its handling of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and Mr. McCain was determined not to appear callous in the face of another major storm.

“We’re not going to do anything that would be deemed inappropriate,” Mr. Davis said.

Mr. McCain said the decision was obvious. “It’s time to open our hearts, our efforts, our wallets, our concern, our care for those American citizens who are now under the shadow and the probability of a natural disaster,” he said.

Some said the change of plans could benefit the McCain campaign.

“Everyone, of course, hopes that New Orleans is spared further devastation. But in truth, Gustav’s silver lining is a lifesaver for the GOP. There is little to celebrate in the Bush record, and the usual political overstatement would only make it worse,” said Doug Kmiec, a former Reagan White House lawyer who has endorsed Sen. Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential nominee.

Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, said Mr. McCain was going too far.

“It’s an overreaction to the Katrina fiasco. By all means, cancel the after-hours parties, hold a telethon and organize volunteer activities. But we shouldn’t suspend the basic events of democracy because of a crisis or a disaster,” he said.

He acknowledged, however that canceling the early events could help build drama and an audience for Mr. McCain’s Thursday acceptance speech.

Democratic strategist Lanny Davis praised Republicans, saying the decision must have been tough and “not without political cost.”

“No matter how much credit they get for doing the right thing and being gracious, the fact is Senator Obama and we Democrats got a great bounce out of the convention,” he said. “That’s a fact. The Republicans were expecting a similar bounce, and this might prevent them from getting one, and I give them a lot of credit.”

Republicans were trying to turn the misfortune into an opportunity for charity. Florida’s delegation canceled its Thursday celebration party and promised instead to send to the Red Cross and local charities the $25,000 that the party would have cost.

“I just decided that wasn’t appropriate,” said Tom Greer, chairman of the Florida Republican Party.

He said the decision was easy for Floridians, who often have been in the path of powerful storms.

Republican officials urged other state delegations and convention party hosts to take up charitable collections.

Convention delegates were trying to make the best of the situation.

“Selfishly, it’s disappointing,” said Art Levine, an alternate delegate from Indiana. “But I support whatever [the party leaders] have to do. It’s very sad for the Gulf Coast.”

The convention is also usually an excuse for lobbying groups to host parties and make friends for their causes.

Yesterday several such parties were converted into fundraisers for Gustav victims, including the recording and liquor industries.

Republicans said they hoped voters would reward Mr. McCain for showing leadership.

Mr. Davis said party rules require that in order to select a nominee, the convention must be gaveled open on Sept. 1. Today, the delegates will constitute the convention, accept the reports of the credentials and rules committees, elect officers and adopt the party platform.

“We have business to take care of. We have to do that,” said Bill Crocker, a Texas delegate.

Mr. McCain made appearances on several news programs Sunday and received briefings from Gulf state governors. He said he had “every expectation that we will not see the mistakes of Katrina repeated.”

“I can hardly wait to get up [to the convention], and I hope and pray we’ll be able to resume some of our normal operations as quickly as possible,” he said.

He said reaction to the announcement of his running mate two days earlier has been positive.

“The enthusiasm and the warmth of the reception for the governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, has been incredible,” he said. “I knew I’d made the right choice, but it’s been confirmed.”

cJon Ward, Jen Haberkorn and Joseph Curl contributed to this article.

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