By  on September 2, 2008

ST. PAUL — The Republican National Convention hung in a pall on Monday, in sharp contrast to the festive celebration party leaders had planned and to the dynamic convention Democrats staged last week in Denver, as Hurricane Gustav slammed into the Gulf Coast, forcing GOP organizers to cancel much of the day’s agenda.

Sen. John McCain, set to be formally nominated as the Republican presidential candidate at the Xcel Energy Center here, ordered convention organizers on Sunday to forego all but the bare minimum procedural votes legally required to hold a convention and nominate a president and vice president.

“This is the time when we have to do away with our party politics and we have to act as Americans,” McCain said via video from St. Louis.

The RNC and McCain campaign announced several fund-raising and relief initiatives Monday morning to help victims of the hurricane in the Gulf States. Target and FedEx are both participating and offering free services in sending 80,000 care packages to the region.

First Lady Laura Bush and McCain’s wife, Cindy, were added to the business-only convention schedule Monday evening to encourage delegates to participate in the relief efforts.

Rick Davis, McCain’s campaign manager, said the senator plans to deliver his acceptance speech.

“We are more optimistic [about the hurricane’s impact] than we were a day ago,” Davis said during a conference call with reporters. “We have absolutely no anticipation that the senator will receive his nomination anywhere but St. Paul. There are no contingency plans to have him outside the city to make his acceptance speech.”

The scaled-back convention that the McCain campaign had themed “Country First” hung in the balance Monday night as the country anxiously awaited the impact of Gustav, which has forced more than 2 million people to flee the Gulf Coast, according to news reports.

The only other actions on Monday were procedural motions and the adoption of the party’s national platform. Speeches by President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney were cancelled. The RNC said the remaining agenda of the convention was being considered on a day-to-day basis.

The remaining official business of the convention includes nominating McCain for president and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as vice president on Wednesday. McCain’s acceptance speech, set for prime time on Thursday, is seen as a crucial high-profile moment to propel his candidacy into the November election.

Davis acknowledged that the RNC and McCain campaign are walking a fine line.

“We are not going to do anything that would be deemed inappropriate during the course of this situation,” he said. “We will refrain from any political rhetoric that would be traditional in opening the session of a convention.”

The hurricane and its aftermath could be seen as a setback for McCain and the thousands of organizers and delegates who converged in the Twin Cities, Minneapolis-St. Paul, hoping to give their candidates a boost heading into the final two months before the November election.

Given what was seen as a highly successful Democratic convention that nominated Illinois Sen. Barack Obama as president and Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden Jr. as his running mate, the McCain campaign was looking for a quick counterpunch, although some observers felt the shift in tone due to the hurricane could work in the GOP’s favor by lowering expectations.

“We don’t have the luxury of trying to evaluate the politics of this kind of situation,” Davis said. “I think we have to take it as it is. People should be more concerned about [the hurricane’s impact] than a political campaign and I think that’s the way we’re going to let the chips fall.”

Some political observers said McCain had received a bump from the wild card he played in selecting Palin as the first woman to serve on a GOP presidential ticket (see sidebar).

“If you were to make a pick that would step all over the Democrats and the good feeling out of Denver, I think John McCain probably did it,” said Robert Bruno, associate professor of labor and industrial relations at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “Not because I think as a governor she is such a substantive choice but because he reached out and nominated a woman. Since the Democrats nominated an African-American for president, obviously McCain had to go out of the box and do something dramatic and game changing.”

But that momentum was wiped away within 24 hours of McCain’s announcement Friday of his running mate by news of the hurricane heading toward the same area devastated by Hurricane Katrina three years ago.

However the convention moves forward, Republicans still need to draw a stark contrast between their convention and the Democrat’s. The best strategy would be to focus on Middle America and comfortable themes, Bruno said.

“Minnesota is a state with a lot of small villages and towns. It is the land of a million lakes and it is small town America, main stream America,” Bruno said. “John McCain will have to do everything he can to try to connect culturally with that.”

But Bruno also noted that Obama’s speech at the Democratic convention is a tough act to follow.

“John McCain knows he can’t command 86,000 people in rapt attention,” said Bruno. “Only a few political figures have been able to do that effectively.

Republicans had aimed to differentiate McCain from Obama by highlighting his military record and foreign policy credentials.

While the Democrats focused the woes of American workers and the middle class last week, the Republicans planned to focus on four different themes: “service, reform, prosperity and peace.”

Former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was still set to give the keynote address tonight. The battered state of the economy and its impact on voters is to be a central theme on Wednesday, as the party also formally nominates Palin as McCain’s running mate.

McCain has outlined an economic plan that includes making permanent Bush’s tax cuts, which expire in 2010, reducing the corporate tax rate to 25 percent from 35 percent and promoting an aggressive free trade agenda.

The plan was to have Meg Whitman, former president and ceo of eBay and national co-chair for the McCain campaign, and Carly Fiorina, former chairman and ceo of Hewlett-Packard Co. and Victory ’08 chair for the Republican National Committee, both of whom are now part of McCain’s economic advisory team, tout the benefits of his blueprint on Wednesday night. Cindy McCain is also set to speak that night.

The final night will feature McCain’s acceptance speech under the theme of “peace,” a reference to his plans to confront the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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