GOP Is Watching Hurricane Closely

Workers make last-minute adjustments to at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn., in preparation for the Republican National Convention.
Workers make last-minute adjustments to at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn., in preparation for the Republican National Convention. (By Justin Sullivan -- Getty Images)
By Michael Abramowitz and Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, August 31, 2008

ST. PAUL, Minn., Aug. 30 -- With Hurricane Gustav gaining power as it nears the Gulf Coast, Republicans scrambled Saturday to make contingency plans for changing the tone of their national convention, worried that televised images of a lavish celebration would provide a jarring contrast to scenes of disaster and mass evacuations.

Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, his new vice presidential running mate, planned to make a last-minute visit Sunday to Jackson, Miss., to receive a briefing from state emergency management officials about preparations for the potentially devastating storm.

Mindful of the political damage from the federal response to Hurricane Katrina three years ago, McCain, who is scheduled to accept his party's nomination Thursday night, said that holding the convention while residents of Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas are suffering would be insensitive. "I'm afraid . . . that we may have to look at that situation, and we'll try to monitor it," he told Fox News in an interview to be aired Sunday. "But, you know, it just 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. So we're monitoring it from day to day."

A campaign spokeswoman said she does not think the trip will impede on hurricane preparations. "I'm sure that if Governor [Haley] Barbour thought Senator McCain and Governor Palin's presence would in any way distract from the important work they're doing in advance of the storm, he wouldn't have invited them," Jill Hazelbaker said, describing the running mates as "deeply concerned" about residents of the region.

Campaigning in western Pennsylvania with Palin on Saturday, McCain briefly alluded to the storm threat. "They need to know, and I know they know, they are in our prayers," he said.

Despite McCain's comments on Fox, there were no indications that the convention, scheduled to open just as Gustav is expected to make landfall, would be canceled or postponed. But McCain advisers also said that the meticulously planned event may have to be radically altered if the storm begins to grow into a calamity like Katrina.

Short of that, campaign staff members and officials organizing the convention said they are looking at different possibilities to show respect and concern for Gulf Coast residents, such as turning Monday's opening session into a of charitable event, perhaps even a telethon, for hurricane victims. They are also talking about turning hundreds of house parties slated to be held for McCain next week into charity fundraisers.

"We need to be sensitive to this as we go forward," said one top McCain official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak for the campaign.

President Bush, who is scheduled to address the convention as it opens Monday, is considering remaining in Washington rather than traveling to St. Paul. One possibility under discussion is for him to speak by satellite video if he determines it is necessary to stay at the White House to respond to the hurricane, one senior GOP strategist said.

White House press secretary Dana Perino told reporters Saturday that officials are monitoring the storm and "are making contingency plans should the president decide against traveling to Minnesota" but added that no decision has been made. "This is a very serious storm," she said.

On a campaign swing through Rust Belt states, Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama also addressed the hurricane, telling reporters during a stop in Ohio that he hopes preparations will be more effective than they were for Katrina.

"It wasn't last time, and hopefully we've learned from that tragedy," he said as he headed to a memorial service for Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D). He would later speak with Federal Emergency Management Agency chief R. David Paulison, Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) and New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin (D), as well as Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R), a close McCain ally.


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