Gustav leaves tangled political landscape

  • Article by: BOB VON STERNBERG , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 1, 2008 - 11:07 PM

Republicans and Democrats are treading carefully and wondering when they can return to politics as usual.

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Cindy McCain, left, and First Lady Laura Bush addressed the convention Monday afternoon before adjournment. They urged people to help the areas hit by Hurricane Gustav.

Photo: Jeff Wheeler, Tribune Star Tribune

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As Republicans began tiptoeing through the first day of their hurricane-ravaged national convention, strategists for both John McCain and Barack Obama pondered how and when to resume a normal presidential campaign.

As both candidates severely ratcheted back their campaign trail appearances Monday, delegates in St. Paul sped through a bare-bones procedural agenda, leavened only briefly by speeches by First Lady Laura Bush and would-be First Lady Cindy McCain.

In her brief remarks, Bush sounded the tone that Republicans are trying to maintain during what has so far been an apolitical political convention. "We are reminded that first, we are all Americans -- and that our shared American ideals will always transcend political parties and partisanship."

Both parties are trying to send that message -- at least until the crisis on the Gulf Coast has passed.

Both are doing a good job, but McCain's campaign seems to be faring better so far, said David Schultz, a political scientist at Hamline University. "McCain," said Schultz, has "sort of been able to politicize Gustav without looking like he's politicizing Gustav. He's getting gains out of what could have been a disaster."

Obama's campaign has the bigger problem, Schultz added, "because they have no control at this point, of the hurricane or the convention, and the Republicans have upset their ability to get their message out," Schultz said.

On the convention floor Monday, several delegates said they're pleased with the way the McCain campaign has played the unexpected hand it has been dealt. And they said they're eager to get back to traditional politicking -- as soon as it would be seemly.

"I don't think there's a better way they could have handled it," said Jon Woodard, a delegate from St. Augustine, Fla. "This pause they've taken was the best thing they could do. And if the news [from the Gulf] turns out to be not as bad as they thought it would be, we can get on with our convention."

Karen Arshinkoff, a delegate from Akron, Ohio, said the party and the campaign "have done all we could to deal with this. It won't hurt the senator in November. And I think it's great the Democrats have approached it the same way. We're all one people here."

Even as Gustav appeared to substantially weaken and avoid a repeat of the disaster spawned by Hurricane Katrina three years ago, the campaigns essentially put their public operations on hold.

For his part, McCain campaigned Monday in Waterville, Ohio, where he visited a disaster relief center, and helped pack cleaning supplies into plastic buckets that will be sent to the area hit by Gustav.

Democratic running mates Obama and Joe Biden sharply curtailed campaigning on Labor Day, traditionally a red-letter day for the party's candidates.

Obama's campaign followed the lead of the Republicans, who on Sunday said fundraising that occurred in relation to the convention would be directed exclusively toward disaster relief.

On Monday, the Obama campaign sent blast e-mails and text messages to supporters on its 2-million-name list, asking for donations to be sent to the American Red Cross.

"Those are probably the minimal moves [Obama] has to make," Schultz said. "The question is who's going to look better at fundraising and patriotism here."

The Democrats' anti-GOP war room in St. Paul was to remain darkened today, as party activists waited for their Republican counterparts to make the first move.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Bob von Sternberg • 612-518-3182

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