By Dan Eggen and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, August 29, 2008
Republican officials said yesterday that they are considering delaying the start of the GOP convention in Minneapolis-St. Paul because of Tropical Storm Gustav, which is on track to hit the Gulf Coast, and possibly New Orleans, as a full-force hurricane early next week.
The threat is serious enough that White House officials are also debating whether President Bush should cancel his scheduled convention appearance on Monday, the first day of the convention, according to administration officials and others familiar with the discussion.
For Bush and Republican presidential candidate John McCain, Gustav threatens to provide an untimely reminder of Hurricane Katrina. A new major storm along the Gulf Coast would renew memories of one of the low points of the Bush administration, while pulling public attention away from McCain's formal coronation as the GOP presidential nominee.
Senior Republicans said images of political celebration in the Twin Cities while thousands of Americans flee a hurricane could be dubious. "Senator McCain has always been sensitive to national crisis," said McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds, noting that the senator postponed announcing his presidential candidacy in 2000 because of the war in the Balkans. "We are monitoring the situation very closely."
Matt Burns, a spokesman for the convention, said that as of last night, it is scheduled to open on time. "We are planning for our convention to open on Monday," he said. "Like all Americans, we are monitoring the situation closely in the Gulf."
Staging a convention during a major natural disaster would be a public relations challenge for either political party. But GOP officials say the burden could be especially heavy for their party, whose reputation was tarred by the Bush administration's bungling of Katrina and its aftermath in 2005.
A hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico could also cast unwelcome attention on the offshore oil rigs that McCain has championed as a solution to rising gasoline prices -- they are now being evacuated in the face of the coming storm.
One senior GOP official said he does not anticipate a convention delay at this point, but he said the event would have to be reorganized if a large storm hit a major city on the coast.
"You would have to dramatically change the nature of what you do. Much less partisan. Much less political," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because internal discussions are ongoing. He added that all the speakers would have to retool their addresses to reflect the storm and its impact. "Otherwise, it's the elephant in the room."
Gustav is the first serious storm to threaten the Gulf Coast in three years, and it presents the most substantial challenge to the nation's homeland security apparatus since it was remade in the wake of Katrina, which hit three years ago today.
Gustav formed Monday and came ashore in Haiti on Tuesday as a Category 1 hurricane, trigging massive flooding and landslides that killed 23 people in the Caribbean. Forecasters said the storm could strengthen to a Category 3 hurricane with winds of 111 mph or higher in coming days, before hitting somewhere between the Florida Panhandle and Texas.
To make matters worse, another tropical storm, named Hanna, formed in the Atlantic Ocean yesterday and could turn toward Florida or elsewhere along the southeastern U.S. coast in coming days, according to the National Hurricane Center.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal has raised the possibility of canceling his speech at the Republican convention because of the storm, while New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin cut short his visit to this week's Democratic convention in Denver.
White House press secretary Dana Perino said yesterday that it was "premature to say" whether the storm might have an impact on Bush's scheduled appearance Monday night. "These storms have a tendency to change, and so I don't have a scheduling update for you now," she told reporters. "Right now everything is on schedule."
Former White House spokesman Scott McClellan, who said in a recent book that Hurricane Katrina left "an indelible stain" on the Bush presidency, said Bush should be making plans to cancel his speech.
"If it's a major hurricane, I think that they certainly need to show they learned lessons from three years ago, both from a policy and perception standpoint," McClellan said.
He also suggested that McCain could benefit politically from such a scenario: It would allow Bush to mount an effective GOP response to a disaster, while removing the unpopular president from the convention roster. "It could be a two-fer," McClellan said.
Some Republicans bemoaned an apparent GOP curse when it comes to summer storms and noted the contrast between the approach of Gustav and the sunny weather in Denver for the Democrats. "The Republicans can't seem to catch a break when it comes to August and when it comes to the weather," said Karl Rove, a former Bush adviser, on Fox News yesterday.
Hurricane Andrew struck South Florida as a Category 5 storm in August 1992, and the sluggish federal response was castigated by state leaders as well as then-candidate Bill Clinton in his successful bid to defeat President George H.W. Bush that fall.
The current President Bush believed that the nation had dodged a bullet after Hurricane Katrina struck in August 2005, only to realize belatedly that New Orleans had flooded and his administration's homeland security apparatus was overwhelmed.
Experts said that key for Bush and perhaps for McCain will be the ability of U.S. officials to respond quickly to unforeseen problems and stay ahead of the unfolding events, something they failed to do in the week after New Orleans flooded.
"This may be the October surprise in September," said George W. Foresman, former undersecretary of preparedness for the Department of Homeland Security. "Public messaging and attention to the public affairs part of the response is going to get added attention."
Michael D. Brown, who was forced out as chief of the Federal Emergency Management Agency after Katrina, said all sides appear to have learned the importance of paying attention to disaster response.
"The American people want to know the people they elected are paying attention, care about them and are making decisions they need to make," Brown said. "The smart thing is not to poke their chests out and say what a great job they're doing or going to do, but just to do what needs to be done."
Staff writer Spencer S. Hsu contributed to this report.