Republicans Curtail Convention Opening Day

Storm cuts down schedule, but Laura Bush, Cindy McCain still take stage.


Sept 1, 2008 — -- It's not the convention the Republicans had planned.

This week was supposed to belong to John McCain and his vice presidential pick, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the first woman ever on a Republican presidential ticket.

First what was supposed to be a weeklong televised Republican extravaganza was been blown off course by Hurricane Gustav, a storm that is hit the Gulf Coast today and forced an historically large evacuation.

Another storm of sorts hit the convention Monday. Creating a firestorm of media attention, Palin confirmed her 17-year-old daughter Bristol is about five months pregnant and is going to keep the child and marry the father. The fact her daughter is keeping the baby may increase Palin's stock with anti-abortion advocates who are already supportive of Palin's anti-abortion rights position.

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

A McCain official told ABC News' George Stephanopoulos that McCain knew about the pregnancy and "didn't believe Governor Palin should be disqualified" for this.

"If Democrats try to attack, it will backfire spectacularly," a McCain campaign official told Stephanopoulos.

With the real storm -- Hurricane Gustav -- hitting the Louisiana coast midday Monday -- the opening day of the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn. -- the McCain campaign scrapped almost its entire program for the day, including a speech by President George W. Bush.

First lady Laura Bush, who is far more popular with the American public than her husband, was dispatched to St. Paul, appearing today on morning programs, and spoke at the close of a truncated afternoon convention session -- complete with video comments from all the Gulf Coast governors except Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.

"Our first priority for today and in the coming days is to ensure the safety and well-being of those living in the Gulf Coast region," Laura Bush told delegates after she received a standing ovation from the Republican crowd.

"The effect of Hurricane Gustav is just now being measured. When such events occur, we are reminded that first, we are all Americans -- and that our shared American ideals will always transcend political parties and partisanship," Laura Bush said.

Cindy McCain appeared on stage beside the first lady, sending the crowd into another spasm of applause.

"I would ask that each one of us commit to join together to aid those in need as quickly as possible. As John has been saying for the last several days, this is a time when we take off our Republican hats and put on our American hats," Cindy McCain told the crowd.

A charter plane carrying Cindy McCain and Palin touched down in Minneapolis Sunday night. The potential first lady and her son Jack appeared Monday at a phone bank fundraiser at the Minneapolis Hilton thanking volunteers for their efforts.

"Thank you for taking time out from what should be a joyous occasion to do what Americans do best, which is be generous," Cindy McCain told the 100 volunteers present. She spent about 10 minutes going around the room speaking with volunteers, while Jack sat down and made some calls.

McCain visited a disaster relief center in Toledo, Ohio, Monday, stopping by the International Services of Hope/IMPACT Disaster Relief Center to shake hands with volunteers. He also packed up a few boxes of cleaning supplies to be sent to the relief effort.

"This is what it's all about," McCain said. "This epitomizes the millions of Americans who are serving on behalf of causes greater than their own self interest and putting their country first."

The Republican National Convention canceled Monday night's program of speakers. Instead, the campaign only opened for a few hours in the afternoon to satisfy party law.

Between 4 and 6:30 p.m. ET, party leaders called the convention to order, received the report of the credentials committee so all delegates present can vote, adopted rules to allow the convention to go forward and elected officers and adopt party platform.

"We've scaled back our agenda and we're only going to do essential business," Republican National Committee Chairman Mike Duncan said on a conference call with reporters Monday morning.

"I know everyone was hoping they could have the big celebration that they wanted to have around the nomination of Sen. McCain and Gov. Palin from Alaska, but on the other hand everybody understands, all the delegates understand, and everyone's eyes are on the Gulf Coast from across the country and hoping for the best and hoping that the damage will not be too severe and that people will be able to get right back to their homes there," Laura Bush said Monday on ABC's "Good Morning America."

The Republican National Convention will be shipping 80,000 "comfort packages" with soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, snackpacks and other necessities to New Orleans and the affected regions. The "assembly site" for these packages will be the convention center, starting Wednesday morning.

Palin had no public events today but was "working on her speech and we're confident she will deliver her speech at the convention," McCain campaign manager Rick Davis told reporters on a conference call. Palin had been scheduled to speak to the convention on Wednesday.

Longtime Republicans said this is the first time in modern convention history that a party's convention has been suspended.

"It's unprecedented," said Republican analyst Torie Clarke, a former Pentagon spokeswoman and an ABC News contributor. "It's the right thing to do, they really can't go on as planned."

Ever mindful of the Bush administration's bungling of Katrina and its aftermath, Republicans see an opportunity to contrast McCain's handling of Gustav with Bush's handing of Katrina.

"We don't want on one side of the screen on ABC there is the devastation of the hurricane and on the other side the jubilation of the convention," a senior McCain campaign official told ABC News.

Vice President Dick Cheney has also canceled his planned visit to the convention, as did Jindal -- one of the rising stars in Republican politics -- who is coordinating evacuation and relief efforts in his state. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will also be absent from the RNC festivities this week because he's wrestling with a budget problem in his state.

On Sunday, McCain and Palin visited a hurricane response center in Jackson, Miss., to learn about preparations.

The campaign hired a charter plane to take members of the Louisiana delegation home who wanted to help with the evacuation effort.

It's a delicate public relations battle for a campaign that has accused the media of paying disproportionate attention to the Democratic ticket, led by Sen. Barack Obama.

But in this case, with most of the big anchors leaving Minneapolis for New Orleans, including ABC's Charles Gibson, the Republicans on Sunday asked the media not to cover the bare-bones convention opening at all.

"McCain has taken the extra step of saying 'we're not going to have any convention events outside of legal necessity,' which reinforces how big of an event Katrina was for Bush and how McCain wants to be seen handling this completely differently," said Republican pollster and strategist David Winston in Minneapolis for the convention.

Republicans who came to Minneapolis expecting a party agreed politically with the decision.

"It's the right decision in light of the impending hurricane," Republican strategist Whit Ayers told ABC "I'm not disappointed at all. It's an expression of concern for the people along the Gulf Coast, and a signal that Republicans have their priorities in order."

With the opening day of the convention largely suspended, some lobbyists also altered their party plans.

Organizers of one of the week's most anticipated parties, hosted by the Distilled Spirits Council, announced they would urge Republican invitees to donate to the Red Cross at the door Monday night.

"Due to the growing threat to our nation from Hurricane Gustav, the sponsors of the Spirits of Minneapolis event on Monday night have made a collective decision to change the event into the Spirits of the Gulf Coast, shifting the focus to a fundraiser for . . . the American Red Cross Hurricane Relief Fund," organizers said in an email to invitees.

"To that end, we will have a senior Red Cross representative in attendance and we will encourage everyone to make a donation to the Fund at the door," the email said. "In addition, the event sponsors will make a large matching contribution and present a check at 10:30 p.m."

GOP leaders are eager to avoid the image of Republicans schmoozing at parties during their convention week while Americans flee their homes and businesses on the Gulf Coast.

The curtailed Republican convention program didn't stop Republican lobbyists and the National Rifle Association from partying the night away in Minneapolis Sunday, however.

The NRA, Lockheed Martin, the American Trucking Association and a Republican lobbying firm called The LeMunyon Group hosted a party at Gluek's Restaurant & Bar in Minneapolis for about 200 people that went on Sunday night as planned.

Another group that did not curtail its efforts because of the storm was the Coalition to March on the RNC and Stop the War, which held a large anti-Iraq war protest that went off at noon at the Minnesota State Capitol Building. Following the rally, protesters marched to the convention hall.

"Hurricane Gustav affects the Republican Party because they don't want to be seen as ignoring another crisis as they did when they left people to die on freeway overpasses," said Meredith Aby of the Coalition to March on the RNC and Stop the War.

"The demonstration will be voicing opposition to the war's prioritization above human needs such as building levees, the economy, health care," she wrote in an e-mail press release.

The Democrats who have set up a war room in Minneapolis and planned to give away buttons that read "Ask Me How Many Houses I Own" have muzzled themselves, not wanting to appear partisan at a time of national crisis.

The Democratic National Committee canceled the media welcoming party that was scheduled for Sunday afternoon in St. Paul and a list of speakers planned for Monday.

"In light of the situation in the Gulf Coast, the Democratic National Committee announced that is has canceled its daily media briefing at the More of the Same Media Center on Monday, Sept. 1. Additional scheduling updates will be provided when available," DNC spokesman Damian LaVera said in a media release.

Obama told reporters Sunday that he doesn't plan to visit the region because of the resources that would be taken away from the hurricane in providing for a visit, but said he plans to mobilize his network of volunteers and donors to help with Hurricane Gustav's aftermath.

Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Biden also decided not to march in the Pittsburgh Labor Day parade today, to avoid images of himself celebrating while Gulf Coast Americans evacuate.

"It shouldn't be a day for national politics," Biden said at a hastily-arranged press conference in a downtown Pittsburgh today. "There's too much happening down there in the Gulf Coast, we don't know what's gonna happen finally, and so we decided that we just weren't gonna march in the parade."

While McCain's schedule remains up in the air, the McCain campaign said that they are still planning on having a roll call vote on Wednesday officially nominating McCain as the Republican presidential candidate and Palin as the vice presidential candidate.

And McCain is still expected to deliver an acceptance speech -- though he isn't expected to garner anywhere near the 84,000 people who watched Obama accept his party's nomination last Thursday night in Denver's Invesco Mile High Stadium.

"[T]his is a time when we have to do away with our party politics and we have to act as Americans. It's a time to act," McCain said in remarks Sunday afternoon. "I want to thank my fellow Republicans as we take off our Republican hats and put on our American hats and say, America we are with you and we are going to care about these people in their time of need."

ABC News' George Stephanopoulos, Rick Klein, Ann Compton, Imtiyaz Delawala, Sunlen Miller, John Berman, Hope Ditto, and Bret Hovell contributed to this report.

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