The Note: The Politics of Gustav

ST. PAUL, Minn. --

To think we worried that this convention week would be dull.

To the pile of history-making events in this remarkable political year, we add another: There will be no Republican National Convention, essentially, on Monday. There might not be one on Tuesday, either -- not really, not as we've come to recognize one.

There is a very big storm barreling up the Gulf of Mexico, promising to wash away American soil and threatening American lives at the other end of the Mississippi. With it go years' worth of meticulous logistical planning -- and months' worth of intricate messaging.

Yet, for all the worry in St. Paul (about Hurricane Gustav, not to mention that other gathering storm that's jeopardizing the GOP this fall) could it be that Republicans aren't all that bummed to be all dressed up with nowhere to go?

"Rather than run away from the hurricane and its political risks, Mr. McCain ran toward it. He hustled on Sunday to Mississippi to make an appearance there, an unmistakable contrast to Mr. Bush," Peter Baker writes in The New York Times. "Mr. McCain's decision to get out front and center played into his 'Country First' campaign slogan, allowing him to reinforce his message that he is not a typical partisan and to draw a sharp contrast with the Bush administration's response of three years ago."

No President Bush, no Vice President Dick Cheney, and no Charlie or Katie or Brian, either.

(Yet First Lady Laura Bush and Cindy McCain are both in St. Paul on Monday. A surprise speaking appearance or two, perhaps?)

It's the day the rhetoric died. But through the clouds -- it's less comic than cosmic: An opening in the party's darkness.

"The extraordinary decision to alter what had been a meticulously planned coronation reflected the powerful and lingering political impact of Katrina," Michael Abramowitz and Robert Barnes write in The Washington Post. "Some Republicans here were clearly hopeful that by quickly shifting the theme of the convention to aiding relief efforts, they could buttress their efforts to show that a McCain administration would represent a departure from Bush. 'It's beginning to creep around the edges that this could be a plus,' said one GOP operative who listened in on a campaign conference call Sunday."

"It's redemption for the Republican Party on the competence issue," a convention planner tells Politico's Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei. "This is McCain doing the right thing, showing leadership and taking command. . . . He's deciding how to handle this, and Bush is irrelevant."

Said McCain: "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."

It was Katrina, not Gustav, that "upended this convention city Sunday," Dan Balz writes in The Washington Post. "What neither McCain nor the party can tolerate now is anything that smacks of insensitivity or incompetence in the face of another potential natural disaster," he writes. "No one has a script for what the Republicans are dealing with now."

"Gustav is now the third name on John McCain's ticket," Slate's John Dickerson writes. "Depending on how McCain responds, he may actually benefit from its presence -- and those in the hurricane's path could also benefit from the politicization of the response."

"Gustav's political impact promises to be just as hard to forecast as its path toward the Gulf Coast, confronting Republicans with anything from a catastrophe to an unexpected opportunity to demonstrate leadership instead of talking about it," Bob Van Sternberg and Mike Kaszuba write in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

"By radically truncating their convention, at least for now, the Republicans are staging a near-oxymoron -- a political convention that could end up being free of politics and devoid of speeches. While that robs them of their nationally amplified megaphone, it also allows them to stand above the fray, raising money for hurricane victims and praying for them aloud."

"What is traditionally a four-day infomercial is now a gathering of Republicans struggling over how to convey their philosophy and promote their presidential candidate without showing a hint of celebration amidst others' misery," Gannett's Chuck Raasch writes.

"It's not the convention the Republicans had planned," ABC's Jennifer Parker writes.

There are worse images than this: "While it may deprive the Republicans a major showcase for the party's nominees in the November, it also provides McCain an opportunity to lead his party during a national humanitarian effort," Brian Mooney writes in The Boston Globe. "Scheduled speakers will stay in the Twin Cities area in the event a full convention resumes, and their texts will be reviewed to make sure they are appropriate for the convention's new depoliticized tone."

Gustav just might elbow out the only storyline that might have approached Clinton-Obama proportions this week: Bush-McCain.

"The marquee act for opening night just canceled, but some Republicans couldn't be happier," Doyle MacManus and James Gerstenzang write in the Los Angeles Times. "It's a good thing," said former Rep. Dick Zimmer, the GOP Senate candidate in New Jersey.

For the GOP, it's an opportunity to put the "country first" theme into action.

For the Obama-Biden ticket, for now, it's being handled from afar: No visit to the Gulf Coast, at least until after the storm has passed. And Obama is putting his e-mail list into action to help storm victims.

"It's a tricky thing, asking for votes at jubilant campaign rallies while thousands of miles South a natural disaster looms," ABC's Jake Tapper reports. "[Sen. Joe] Biden and Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., have decided to handle it by mentioning Gustav frequently on the campaign trail, activating supporters, phoning federal, state, and local officials to be debriefed and to offer help -- and otherwise to campaign as previously scheduled."

Which meant an attack on McCain and Gov. Sarah Palin on gender pay equity. "I've got to say, she's opposed like John McCain is to equal pay for equal work. That doesn't make much sense to me," Obama said Sunday, per ABC's Sunlen Miller.

Which meant this response from McCain campaign manager Rick Davis: "So he attacks us while there's a hurricane going on and John McCain suspends his convention basically. What bigger contrast can you have about putting your country first?" Davis tells Politico's Jonathan Martin.

It's all business in St. Paul: a 4 pm ET (3 pm CT) call to order, and motoring through business that should be done by 6:30 pm ET (5:30 pm CT).

The protests, at least, are on: The big antiwar demonstrations start at the state Capitol grounds at noon ET (11 am CT).

"Despite the absence of two key members of their target audience -- President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney -- the march will go on, protest organizer Jess Sundin said at a news conference Sunday," per Mara H. Gottfried and Bob Shaw of the St. Paul Pioneer Press. "She predicted 50,000 protesters from 125 local and national groups would march to protest the war in Iraq."

The parties, too, are on (mostly, and now it's cool to give money to charity in addition to giving booze to delegates): "Unlike tonight's session, Republican officials did not pull the plug on the hundreds of receptions, parties and concerts planned here during convention week -- to the relief of Twin Cities' caterers, entertainers and others hungry for a slice of RNC business," Tom Webb writes in the Pioneer Press. "But Sen. John McCain's campaign manager, Rick Davis, on Sunday urged the party crowd to 'be respectful of the situation that exists in the Gulf.' That was widely interpreted to mean: Wild and crazy is out. Dignified and concerned is in."

"At a Landmark Center reception for Arizona and Minnesota delegates Sunday afternoon, pink fliers on the tables at St. Paul's Landmark Center urged partygoers to donate to the Red Cross. By the end of the event, a bowl near the entrance held a mix of ones, fives and twenties," Jeff Shelman writes in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "When members of the Ohio delegation got on paddleboats for a Mississippi River cruise, they received pledge cards. Pledges are to be matched by corporate sponsors."

"The trade association for the U.S. liquor industry renamed its 'the Spirits of Minneapolis' party set for tonight to 'the Spirits of the Gulf Coast' " -- and they're asking guests to make donations to the American Red Cross, per Bloomberg's Christopher Stern and Edwin Chen. "Another party, the 'New Orleans All-Star Jam-Balaya' is scheduled for tonight. Among its sponsors are the National Homebuilders Association, Property Casualty Insurers and Fannie Mae."

Because of Gustav: "No open bar."

Ron Paul still has his schedule intact, but the delegates are behind McCain. "Mr. McCain enters this year's convention with the enthusiastic support of nearly 9 in 10 delegates, according to a poll of Republican delegates by The New York Times and CBS News," Jackie Calmes and Meghan Thee write in the Times. "The delegates' unanimity comes in spite of their description of themselves as more conservative than Mr. McCain, whose maverick image has long made him controversial in his party."

Enough to get this crowd buzzed: "A CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll released Sunday night shows the Obama-Biden ticket leading the McCain-Palin ticket by one point, 49 percent to 48 percent, with the statistical margin of error." (Does Newton's third law apply to politics?)

One liberal group plays on Katrina: From the Campaign for America's future, an ad geared toward delegates who are hanging out in their hotel rooms in St. Paul (it's running on some national cable channels -- and as a national hotel cable buy). "To the conservatives gathered in St. Paul . . . Thanks for the memories," the ad says, with images of Katrina washing across the screen. "We'll take it from here."

(Nothing like a liberal group's ad campaign to get the faithful rallied . . . )

And two (or more) can play this game: "Political strategist Karl Rove, freed of his White House role, is encouraging major Republican donors to give their money to organizations that operate independently of the Republican Party and are poised to spend upwards of $100 million trying to elect conservatives this fall," the Washington Times' (new hire) Jeffrey Birnbaum reports.

"Mr. Rove, the architect of President Bush's election victories, has been telling Republican benefactors across the country that giving to official Republican Party fundraising committees will not be enough this year, according to people familiar with his pitch over the past few months," Birnbaum writes.

As for what IS happening Monday:

Cindy McCain and some family members plan to visit with the Louisiana convention delegation at 9 am CT Monday in Minneapolis.

Laura Bush is in St. Paul -- with time to squeeze in an appearance, surely. "I know everybody was hoping they could have the big celebration that they wanted to have around the nomination of Senator McCain and Governor Palin from Alaska," the first lady said on ABC's "Good Morning America." "But, on the other hand, everybody understands."

Obama and Biden campaign solo on Monday, and his schedule says Labor Day.

Obama will host a morning "Rally for America's Workers" in Detroit, featuring the Teamsters' James Hoffa and the AFL-CIO's John Sweeney.

Then comes a barbeque with more labor folks in Monroe, Mich., and appears with Wisconsin bigwigs at the annual Laborfest rally in Milwaukee.

Also in the news:

From the annals of catharsis: A must-read op-ed from former Clinton campaign communications direction Howard Wolfson: "Once we ran out of states and the campaign ended, we were like Rip Van Winkle. We awoke to a world transformed by political currents we had stood against," Wolfson writes in The Washington Post.

"Then came Thursday night at Invesco Field. During the campaign, we scoffed at events like this, mostly because we were not capable of producing them. A cross section of voters waited for hours to enter the stadium and take their seats. As one friend put it, it looked more like an American convention than the convention of any particular political party," Wolfson continues.

"For 18 months, I listened to Obama on television, sometimes intently, often just barely -- background noise to a running series of conference calls and meetings and e-mails," he writes. "In person, my attention undivided, I saw something of what so many others had seen for so long."

As for the new ticket -- is it possible they actually, honest-to-goodness like each other? (Don't fret -- people said the same thing about Kerry-Edwards.)

"As the two barnstormed through the Rust Belt on their first campaign swing together over the holiday weekend, it was clear that they also possessed a more elusive political quality: chemistry," Shailagh Murray writes in The Washington Post. "So far, Biden's role has been part father figure and part foil. He picks loose threads off Obama's jacket and warms up crowds with wisecracks and aphorisms. On Saturday morning, he and his wife, Jill, had French toast for breakfast with the Obamas. His grandkids hit it off with Obama's daughters and have already had one sleepover. At every event, he and Obama embrace and backslap each other, like a pair of long-lost brothers."

McCain-Palin is working out, too: "For Christian conservatives, who watched with dismay as their issues were ignored or trivialized during the long Republican primary, the surprise addition to the GOP ticket of a woman raised in a Pentecostal church, who once described herself as 'pro-life as any candidate can be,' has transformed an election many had come to regard with indifference," The Washington Post's Michael D. Shear and Juliet Eilperin write.

It's a new image: "With his selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate, John McCain is giving his campaign a political makeover: Rather than selling himself as a war hero with national security credentials, he is donning the mantle of the reformer," Robin Abcarian and Peter Wallsten write in the Los Angeles Times. "The new approach borrows a page from the playbook of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who late in the Democratic primary campaign framed herself as a hero of the struggling middle class."

It's exciting: "Thursday night, after Barack Obama's well-orchestrated, well-conceived and well-delivered acceptance speech in Denver, Republicans were demoralized," William Kristol writes in his New York Times column. "Twenty-four hours later, they were energized -- even exuberant. It's amazing what a bold vice-presidential pick who gives a sterling performance when she's introduced will do for a party's spirits."

Hello, future: "By picking Palin, McCain has strengthened his reputation not as an ideologue, not as a partisan, but as a reformer -- ready to shake up Washington as his hero, Teddy Roosevelt, once did," David Broder writes in his column. "The Democrats' great advantage is that they are not responsible for the pain and frustration that many voters have suffered in the Bush years. But if McCain and Palin can shift the focus to the future, they may be able to appeal to the 'change' voters who will in the end decide the election."

They're loving her: "John McCain presented his new vice presidential running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, to thousands of cheering Missouri supporters at a sun-drenched Sunday afternoon rally at the home of St. Charles County's minor league baseball team," Mark Schlinkmann and Michele Munz write in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

But who wants to cross this bridge? "Palin was for the Bridge to Nowhere before she was against it," Tom Kizzia writes in the Anchorage Daily News. "The Alaska governor campaigned in 2006 on a build-the-bridge platform, telling Ketchikan residents she felt their pain when politicians called them 'nowhere.' They're still feeling pain today in Ketchikan, over Palin's subsequent decision to use the bridge funds for other projects -- and over the timing of her announcement, which they say came in a pre-dawn press release that seemed aimed at national news deadlines.

"Public records and her own statements show that the Alaska governor was a supporter of the bridge from Ketchikan to Gravina Island (population 50), but flip-flopped last year in what her political foes have called a bid to catch McCain's eye," the New York Daily News' Richard Sisk writes.

And where's your reformer now? "The bigger question is who will she vote for in the Senate race in her home state," ABC's John Berman and Ursula Fahy write. "McCain campaign aides will not guarantee that she will endorse the senior Senator. Of course, perhaps more telling is that they won't promise she won't endorse him either. [Stevens,] though the antithesis of reform, is an icon in Alaska politics."

Consider how this might have been the story this week: "The divergent campaign themes underscore the absence of a unified message from the Republican Party, which for more than a quarter-century has relied on an orthodoxy of small government, low taxes, tough foreign policy and conservative 'family values' to win elections," Bloomberg's Heidi Przybyla and Indira A.R. Lakshmanan report.

We missed you so: "This ordinary boy [Obama] just might be the first president in the history of the United States to have a black woman sleeping at 1600 Pennsylvania legally," the Rev. Jeremiah Wright said at a Houston church Sunday, per the New York Post's Geoff Earle.

If you're really bored while in town . . . "There was no line for the first tourist attraction that many delegates to the 2008 Republican National Convention were encountering," Abdon Pallasch writes in the Chicago Sun-Times. "The airport men's room where Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) allegedly sought sex from an undercover male police officer was open for use after a janitor finished cleaning it Saturday afternoon. Classical music played, the Dyson Airblade hand-dryers whirred and a 'Diaper Deck' fold-down diaper-changing table went unused."

The Kicker:

"She's good looking. . . . And hanging out with this lean, young-looking guy is making me feel pretty old, you know what I mean?" -- Joe Biden, enumerating an important difference between himself and his GOP counterpart.

"One doesn't anticipate that one's private conversation will be surreptitiously taped by some right-wing nutcase." -- Former DNC chairman Don Fowler, apologizing for joking (in a caught-on-tape moment) that Hurricane Gustav's timing "demonstrates that God's on our side."

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