The Republican National Convention was thrown into turmoil Sunday as Hurricane Gustav approached the Gulf Coast, threatening a disaster that forced party organizers to rewrite long-held plans on the fly and all but cancel political speechmaking and celebrations.
Facing a potential reprise of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans and severely damaged an unprepared Bush White House, Republicans scrambled to develop the appropriate response to the potential destruction looming again.
Ariz. Sen. John McCain and his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, visited the Gulf briefly and instructed convention organizers to suspend all but essential business on the opening day of the convention and turn many of the gathering's planned festivities into fundraisers for potential victims of the storm.
"Ahead of time, I want to thank all my fellow Republicans as we take off our Republican hats and put on our American hats," McCain said via live video feed from St. Louis, where he had just returned from a briefing with Gulf State governors hosted by Mississippi's Gov. Haley Barbour.
Adding to the sense of uncertainty, President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney announced that they would skip the convention to monitor preparations for the storm, which is expected to make landfall late this morning.
Officials said that as part of the convention's opening night, Laura Bush and McCain's wife, Cindy, would speak from the podium and describe ways to help victims of Hurricane Gustav. The First Lady visited the convention hall Sunday evening to check out the podium. Cindy McCain and Palin arrived in the Twin Cities by private plane Sunday night.
Staffers making preparations at the Xcel Energy Center anxiously gathered around televisions sets tracking the storm's path, while convention organizers discussed shortening, canceling or toning down the week's festivities.
"We had hoped we could have a more traditional convention, but events have conspired otherwise," said McCain campaign manager Rick Davis. "There is no pattern to how we will react to this."
All speeches scheduled for today's opening session were canceled, with events limited to perfunctory party business such as receiving credentials reports, adopting rules, electing party officers and approving a party platform.
Maria Cino, the convention's chief executive officer, raised the possibility that McCain, and perhaps Palin as well, might not attend the convention at all. "We're hopeful he'll be here but we'll play it day by day," Cino said on CNN.
No rhetoric planned
McCain said in an interview with NBC that it was possible he would make his acceptance speech not from the convention podium but via satellite from the Gulf Coast region.
Cino said convention officials will meet each morning following today's business-only session to assess the situation and determine if they will call the delegates into session for that day and what activities will be conducted.
"We will refrain from any of the political rhetoric that would be traditional in the opening session of a convention," Davis said.
Democrats who had come to St. Paul to respond to the Republican convention canceled a planned media reception Sunday in light of the situation on the Gulf Coast. But it remained unclear whether any of this would change the tone of today's planned anti-Bush demonstrations around the convention center.
Organizers say a protest that could reach 50,000 people will go on as scheduled around noon today, with marchers heading from the State Capitol through St. Paul's narrow streets to the GOP convention venue. Gustav's course doesn't alter the protesters' message, according to Meredith Aby, one of the organizers.
Throughout the last-minute preparations and alterations, one paramount concern remained: How to launch McCain's fall campaign with the requisite cheer and energy, while remaining sensitive to the spectre of human tragedy that could very easily overtake political events in St. Paul.
"We want to be respectful of the situation in the gulf," Davis said. "We're not going to do anything that would be deemed inappropriate in the course of this situation."
The result is already a national convention -- normally one of the most highly stage-managed and carefully scripted events in American politics -- that will have to be improvised day by day.
Without offering much in the way of specifics, convention officials and McCain said they would use the convention as a fundraiser for relief efforts if hurricane damage is as severe as feared.
They talked about holding charitable fundraisers during the myriad delegate events this week.
"Now is the time to open our hearts, our efforts, our wallets ... for Americans under the shadow of a natural disaster," McCain said.
An outing to the exclusive Hazeltine golf course, one of the hottest tickets of the convention, will be used to raise money for hurricane relief efforts, according to an aide to Rep. John Kline, who is hosting the event.
Politically, the hurricane presents opportunities as well as challenges. The way the Bush administration handles the storm could be a chance to demonstrate lessons learned from Katrina, which killed 1,500 and lead to recrimination about the president's response.
Already, Bush's response was in stark contrast to Katrina in 2005, when the president returned from vacation and initially watched the devastation through an airplane window. Down below, thousands of storm victims languished without an effective government response.
The event -- combined with the Iraq war -- marked the beginning of Bush's slide in the polls.
For McCain, whom Democrats would like to tie to the Bush legacy, the president's absence from the convention also represents a chance to show his own mettle under pressure, while at the same time removing an unpopular figure from the showcase event of his campaign.
A split-screen convention
"The link with Bush is a real challenge for McCain," said Joseph Kunkel, a political scientist at the Minnesota State University at Mankato. "But if God intervenes and Bush isn't able to appear, that might not be so bad."
But for the McCain campaign and its convention organizers, the storm has already produced a split-screen convention, with some reporters and network anchors turning their gaze to the Gulf Coast 1,000 miles down the Mississippi River.
The convention host committee proceeded with plans for Sunday night's delegate party.
"We plan to be as flexible as possible," said committee spokeswoman Theresa McFarland. "We have 45,000 people attending and most are already here."
Staff Writers Bob Von Sternberg, Curt Brown and Neal Justin and the Associated Press contributed to this report.
Kevin Diaz • 202-408-2753