Gulf Coast Delegations Hunker Down in St. Paul

While their states were being battered by Hurricane Gustav, the Louisiana and Mississippi Republican delegations were in St. Paul, Minn., for the opening of their party's truncated national convention, committed to nominating their 2008 presidential candidate by the week's end.

"We have a job to do here at the convention," said Louisiana delegate Matthew Wallace, "and we're going to do it."

For the latest on Hurricane Gustav, watch "Gustav Storms the Gulf" on a special edition of "20/20" at 10 p.m. ET

But for some Gulf state delegates, being so far from home during this crisis was a difficult experience.

Lee and Freda Bush of the Mississippi delegation describe "mixed emotions" at the convention, where they find themselves "wondering whether to go or whether to stay."

On Sunday, Republican National Convention leaders cancelled the full slate of speakers scheduled for Monday evening in favor of just a few hours of official party business, allowing party leaders to survey hurricane damage and consider additional modifications to the GOP's scheduled festivities this week.

Special Guests

Two unexpected speakers made appearances at this morning's Louisiana delegation breakfast: first lady Laura Bush and Republican candidate John McCain's wife, Cindy McCain.

Joined by her four children, McCain talked to the Louisiana audience about her husband's years as a prisoner of war.

"It is his experience as a POW, as a naval officer, as a man, as a father, as a representative of the U.S. Congress, and as a senator that makes him tick," McCain said to applause. "It's made him who he is. It is because of all of that, and all of his life experiences, he will make the finest president you will ever have."

First lady Laura Bush also made an appearance there, defending her husband against charges from critics that he is out of touch with the country's voters.

Both women will take the convention stage late in the afternoon Monday in St. Paul before the program closes early for the night. They will promote hurricane fundraising efforts for the affected region.

Katrina Not Far From Minds

In light of overwhelming criticism the Bush administration received for its response to Hurricane Katrina three years ago, the party is aware there is an opportunity with Gustav, to restore some damage. Wallace offered little criticism for the Bush administration's handling of Hurricane Katrina three years ago, but said that Gustav provides "hands-on experience" that allows the Republican presidential ticket to "showcase what McCain-Palin can offer us."

Mississippi delegate Gary Harkins, who serves as a local county party chairman, said, despite the fact that many members of his delegation have delayed convention arrivals until later in the week due to the storm, "the mood is real positive."

Maryilyn Huff, an alternate convention delegate who lives 90 miles north of New Orleans and lost part of her home to Hurricane Katrina, says she and fellow Gulf Coast representatives have been taking life at the convention day by day.

"We're just doing the things we must do to get McCain elected," Huff said. "Holding only briefing meetings, conducting just business."

John Fair, a Mississippi delegate, said he felt "the right decision had been made" by the GOP to "refocus the convention, putting country first."

Fair said he was looking forward to hearing from the full slate of party leaders this week and that he is "disappointed" those plans have changed, particularly in light of McCain's unexpected selection of first-term Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to the November ticket.

Still, Fair says he was "very encouraged" by the McCain-Palin ticket after hearing campaign surrogates speak to the Alaska governor's strengths this weekend.

One of those surrogates, former U.S. ambasaddor John Bolton, was the keynote speaker at the Mississippi delegation's Monday breakfast, offering "thoughts and prayers" to the Gulf Coast region, and encouraging attendees to "involve ourselves in the relief efforts."

The majority of his remarks, however, focused on Palin, who he descibed as "one smart lady with a great grasp of the issues." Bolton said he was "proud of McCain for making the decision" to select Palin.

The morning breakfast event took place before news broke that Palin's 17-year-old unmarried daughter is pregnant.

ABC News' Rachel Humphries and Steven Portnoy contributed to this report.

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