McCain, Bush, GOP Eye Convention Revamp Amid Gustav

McCain calls for changes, heads for Gulf Coast; Bush skipping RNC for emergency.


Aug. 31, 2008— -- Officials from the Republican National Convention and the presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain have announced that they will suspend most of their convention program for Monday, conducting only official business required to start the event.

McCain campaign manager Rick Davis said that the campaign was not making any commitments beyond 5:30 p.m. CT tomorrow, and that future plans would hinge on the impact of Hurricane Gustav, which was expected to make landfall on the Gulf Coast on Monday.

There were to be no political speeches on the first day of the convention, to be held in St. Paul, Minn.

Davis said the campaign hoped all convention speakers would get to speak at some point but that the convention would feature only official business, with no "political rhetoric."

The McCain campaign will extend a request to all the convention participants inside and outside the hall to participate in a fundraising effort for the Gulf Coast, Davis said.

Speaking from Mississippi, where he was meeting with the governor, John McCain told reporters at the convention via satellite that it was not the time for politics. "We have to do away with our party politics and be Americans," the soon-to-be Republican presidential nominee said.

Davis would not commit to saying whether McCain would be in St. Paul this week. "If conditions allow we would love to have him here," Davis said.

McCain said earlier in the day that the Republican National Convention must change its plans in light of the threat from hurricane.

"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," McCain said.

McCain and the Republican Party are anxious not to appear complacent in the face of the storm after President George W. Bush was roundly criticized for a slow response to Hurricane Katrina when that storm hit the Gulf Coast three years ago.

Today, McCain and his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, toured an emergency operations center in Jackson, Miss., to learn about that state's preparations for the storm.

And Bush announced that he, too, would travel to the anticipated impact zone -- heading Monday to Texas and then Louisiana as conditions permit -- to monitor the emergency response to the storm. Earlier, the White House announced Bush would not be speaking Monday evening at the convention in St. Paul, as previously scheduled.

McCain today called on people from both parties to come together and serve after the hurricane.

"There's very little doubt," McCain said, "that we have to go from a party event to call on the nation for action -- action to help our fellow citizens in this time of tragedy and disaster, action in the form of volunteering, donations, reaching out our hands and our hearts and our wallets to the people who are under such a great threat from this great natural disaster."

Florida Republican Party chairman Jim Greer told ABC News that postponing the RNC was not under consideration but that the party was discussions altering the convention program.

As McCain wrapped up a meeting with Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, campaign officials said that the senator would confer with campaign manager Rick Davis and others in St. Paul, Minn., to decide whether and how to reshape the convention.

Republicans and McCain campaign officials are wary that images of balloon drops and celebratory speeches at the convention -- where the theme is "country first" -- broadcast alongside footage of mass evacuations will look just as bad for them as it did for Bush when he was photographed vacationing at his Crawford, Texas, ranch when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005.

"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," McCain told Fox News' Chris Wallace Sunday.

Cindy McCain told ABC News' George Stephanopoulos Saturday, in an interview broadcast today, that she and her husband were open to all options, including fundamentally re-structuring the convention.

"We're keeping a very close eye on what this hurricane is doing," she said. "If it looks like it's going to hit, we will, obviously, drastically change our plans. This is not a time to celebrate."

The Republican National Committee also has set up a committee in St. Paul tasked with monitoring Hurricane Gustav and evaluating its impact on the convention schedule. The committee will mainly work to make sure delegates from the affected states have information and assistance if necessary.

Saturday evening, an RNC official told that all systems were go for Monday.

"We are monitoring the storm and are moving forward with our scheduled program at this time," the official said. "We understand that some participants may need to remain home to prepare their states for the approaching storm. While we intend to gavel our convention to order on Monday afternoon, our convention places country first, and ensuring the safety of our citizens is of paramount importance."

Some in the storm's path don't think the RNC's efforts are enough.

Roosevelt Smith lives in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans and was in his boat during Hurricane Katrina, rescuing people out of 20 feet of water. Smith is incensed that the Republicans would hold their convention in the midst of a potential natural disaster.

"Insult, it would be a complete insult and I think they'll do it anyway," Roosevelt said.

Those in the McCain campaign are worried about reactions like Smith's but, citing the fact that they have actual business to conduct -- like officially nominating John McCain and approving the party platform -- claim there are few options to cancel the convention.

A postponement would create more than a headache for the XCel center staff, who had 3,000 seats removed from the stadium, all furniture removed from the "suite" level of the stadium and 18 semi-truck loads of equipment hauled out of the arena for the event.

The RNC has the XCel center booked until Sept. 17, and the next event at the arena isn't until a Minneapolis school superintendent meeting on Sept. 18.

But while the RNC has the space for another week and a half after the convention is slated to end, an XCel center staffer said that the extra time was booked to just to be able to unload and re-load all the center's materials.

"We need that much time to get the facility back in its original capacity," said Kathleen O'Connor, the XCel center's director of media relations. "That's the estimated time it would take just for the load out."

Fortunately, O'Connor said they left themselves a "little padding," and that if push came to shove they could probably hustle and accommodate a postponed convention.

"It would take additional labor, but it would be possible," O'Connor said. "Of course, its not ideal. You always want to stay on schedule, but we're used to adjusting plans based on the needs of our clients, and we'll work with them."

Postponing the convention could also have serious effects on McCain's momentum in the media, as an estimated 15,000 journalists covering the conventions are already descending on St. Paul. Delays would not only create a logistical dilemna for the press, but could shift the media spotlight away from McCain -- who garnered copious media attention with his surprise announcement of Palin as his running mate.

Major television networks could break into convention programing coverage if there are hurricane updates. And some major television networks are already weighing sending convention on-air talent to the Gulf Coast.

The Los Angeles Times reported that CNN's Anderson Cooper, who was one of the network's principal anchors for the Democratic Convention, might stay in New Orleans if Gustav hits the region. Cooper was there to mark the third anniversary of Katrina, the Times reported.

Losing any of the public's attention could hurt Republicans on the heels of the Democrats' highly rated convention. According to numbers released by the Nielsen Co., the Democratic National Convention in Denver was the most watched ever, attracting an average of 30.2 million viewers over the four days -- more than the Beijing 2008 Olympics.

RNC officials admit that in light of the hurricane, they have to be cautious with the convention's tone, but still need to get their message out. Mississippi Republican Party co-chairwoman Jeanne Luckey lost her home to Hurricane Katrina and is concerned about Hurricane Gustav, but said the show must go on.

"It would be a disservice to the American people if they cannot see our convention too," Luckey told ABC News.

ABC News' David Chalian, Karen Travers, Tahman Bradley, Ron Claiborne, Emily Friedman and Jennifer Duck contributed to this report.

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