Bush to skip GOP convention

President Bush and Vice President Cheney have canceled planned appearances at Republican National Convention so they can focus on Hurricane Gustav, the White House said Sunday.

Bush had been scheduled to speak Monday night. The hurricane is causing major problems for convention planners, who must consider whether to reschedule or cancel events in the wake of possible death and damage in the New Orleans area and elsewhere.

"It 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," presumptive GOP nominee John McCain said in a pre-taped interview for Fox News Sunday.

McCain and his chosen running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, travel Sunday to Mississippi at the invitation of Gov. Haley Barbour and receive a briefing at the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency. The Mississippi Gulf Coast, ravaged by Hurricane Katrina three years ago, is is threatened again by Gustav.

Saturday, Palin eagerly began her new job as McCain's running mate and greeted key swing-state voters with some of her family in tow.

"It is so good to be here in Steeler Country!" Palin told about 5,000 supporters at a minor league ballpark in Washington, Pa., about 30 miles south of Pittsburgh. Members of the crowd, including some from nearby Ohio and West Virginia, chanted, "Sarah! Sarah! Sarah!"

The 44-year-old governor echoed the largely biographical, introductory speech she gave Friday in Dayton. The self-described "hockey mom" said she sought the mayor's job in tiny Wasillla, Alaska, in order to "stop wasteful spending, cut property taxes, and put the people first."

After a stint on an Alaska ethics board, in which she pursued a case against the chairman of the state's Republican Party, Palin won election as governor in 2006. "I stood up to the old politics as usual," she said, including the "good old boys network."

McCain introduced his newly minted running mate to the crowd at Consol Energy Park, citing her record of "reform and public integrity."

The Arizona senator also called for prayers on behalf of the Gulf Coast residents potentially in the path of Hurricane Gustav.

Polls show a close race here: Democrat Barack Obama leads McCain by an average of 5 percentage points, according to RealClearPolitics.com.

Terry Madonna, a political scientist at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, said McCain's surprise decision to put the little-known Palin on the national Republican ticket is "high-risk, high reward."

"This is going to come down to how she performs," Madonna said.

Obama's campaign and the Democratic National Committee spent Saturday sending e-mails questioning Palin's qualifications for vice president, including newspaper editorials from her home state of Alaska, noting that just three years ago, she was the mayor of tiny Wasilla, Alaska (population: 7,000).

One Obama campaign e-mail, for example, cited an editorial in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, which said Palin "has never publicly demonstrated the kind of interest, much less expertise, in federal issues and foreign affairs that should mark a candidate for the second-highest office in the land."

Republican Lyda Green, president of the Alaska Senate and someone who has occasionally clashed with Palin, told the Anchorage Daily News, "She's not prepared to be governor. How can she be prepared to be vice president or president?"

McCain and his campaign have emphasized that Palin got involved in politics to fight corruption and wasteful spending, and that her challenge to the political status quo rocketed her to the governor's mansion in a short period. They also said her years as mayor compare favorably to the résumé of Obama, a first-term U.S. senator.

"By the way, Gov. Palin has more executive experience" than Obama, former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge said earlier at the ballpark rally.

Ridge added, "I smell victory, but we've got to win Pennsylvania."

"She's a tough politician," GOP strategist Rich Galen said Saturday. "She understands how the game is played."

In introducing his running mate, McCain cited Palin's middle-class roots and said she is someone who understands the problems of real people. He called her a "great governor" who has worked with both parties, showing "great tenacity and skill in tackling tough problems."

Pennsylvania, which has voted Democratic in four consecutive presidential elections, is a key to winning on Nov. 4. The rural, western areas around Pittsburgh are crucial to McCain's hopes of capturing the state's 21 electoral votes, Pennsylvania pollster Jim Lee said.

Lee said McCain and Palin need to offset what is expected to be a strong vote for Obama and Biden in Philadelphia and its increasingly Democratic suburbs. Philadelphia has the state's largest concentration of black voters, which tend to vote Democratic. The city's TV market also reaches Delaware, which Biden has represented in the U.S. Senate for more than 30 years.

Palin's opposition to abortion rights should help sway voters in central Pennsylvania, around the capital of Harrisburg, and in the western part of the state, according to Lee.

"Voters in these areas are much more conservative on social issues," he said.

Contributing: Randy Lilleston in St. Paul