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.
In addition to the humanitarian dimensions, Gustav is presenting a huge political challenge to the GOP, which suffered badly from the widespread perception that the Bush administration botched the response to Katrina, which made landfall almost exactly three years ago. Mindful of the potential repercussions, the Republican governors of Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas are passing up prized speaking slots or abandoning plans to attend the convention to take care of hurricane preparations and response at home.
McCain still plans to use the convention to introduce his new running mate to the nation and to launch himself into the fall campaign. "McCain needs a good convention. Gustav is making that tough," said Ed Rogers, a prominent GOP strategist and lobbyist who is close to Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour.
"Everybody is aware of the devastating TV split-screen potential here," Rogers added. "The affected governors . . . are all major-leaguers with close ties to McCain. The best political antennas in the party are tuned in to this."
In a statement Saturday afternoon, Republican National Convention President Maria Cino said: "Like all Americans, our prayers are with those who will be affected by Hurricane Gustav. We continue to closely monitor the movement of the storm and are considering necessary contingencies. We are in communication with the Gulf state governors to make sure the convention is taking all the appropriate steps as the Hurricane progresses. The safety of our affected delegations is our first priority and preparing for Gustav comes before anything else."
McCain and Palin spent their second day together on the campaign trail Saturday, attending a rally under a blazing sun and brilliant skies in western Pennsylvania, moving from the Ohio basketball arena where she was introduced as his running mate Friday to a minor league ballpark in Washington County, Pa., home of the Washington Wild Things. There were McCain-Palin T-shirts and a scattering of red Women for McCain signs in the crowd, but the rhetoric was a carbon copy of Friday's announcement.
The campaign is moving slowly in introducing Palin on the national stage. Saturday's events included a stop at a diner in Pittsburgh and an early evening event at Consol Energy Park, which holds about 5,000 people, making it one of McCain's bigger events.
McCain, in a blue shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and Palin, in a peach jacket and black skirt, took the stage with their families. Introduced by former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge, who had been passed over in the vice presidential search, the two offered decidedly nonpartisan speeches heavy on words such as "reform."
At least once, the rhetoric was a bit more inclusive than the crowd seemed to like.
When Palin repeated a line from Friday's announcement about the "grace" Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton had shown in her presidential bid, some attendees booed. When she got to the payoff line -- "We can shatter that glass ceiling once and for all" -- the crowd cheered and chanted "Sar-ah, Sar-ah."
Palin presented herself as a fighter of corruption in her home state of Alaska, who passed ethics legislation and fought "the good ol' boys." She said that when skyrocketing oil prices filled her state's coffers, she returned the money "directly to the people of Alaska."
She said she would take "our message of reform to every voter of every background in every political party or no party at all."
"No leader in America," she added, "presents so clear a threat to business as usual in Washington as John S. McCain."
Staff writers Michael D. Shear, Juliet Eilperin and Paul Kane contributed to this report.