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As Delegates Assemble, The Outside World Intrudes

By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 2, 2008

ST. PAUL, Minn., Sept. 1 -- They came here to be part of the news, but hundreds of delegates spent their first day at the Republican National Convention watching the news unfold just like everyone else. They gathered around big-screen televisions in restaurants and hotel lobbies to track reports of an expected storm and a young woman who was expecting. The convention they had traveled so far to attend, delegates said, barely occupied their minds.

"I thought maybe I'd be on TV," Alaska delegate Bob Lynn said. "But now I'm just watching it."

It was a role reversal that required significant adjustment, especially since none of the news appeared to be particularly welcome for Republicans. Left with idle time because of a truncated convention schedule Monday, most delegates spent the morning following Hurricane Gustav as it moved toward the Louisiana coast. When those television images were interrupted by the revelation that the 17-year-old daughter of the Republican vice presidential nominee is five months pregnant, some delegates felt as if fate had conspired against them.

"It's a very unusual start to a convention and we're all just trying to bear with it," said delegate Peggy Lambert of Maryville, Tenn. "Most of us have our minds on other things right now. It's a little bit somber because of these outside issues. Right now, it just doesn't seem like there's very much to celebrate."

Republican delegates comforted themselves by talking to each other about how well their party handled Monday's misfortune. McCain's decision to scale back the convention in the wake of Gustav showed compassionate leadership, they said, and many state delegations followed his example by making sacrifices of their own. New Jersey canceled a sundae party, deciding that it was in bad taste to eat ice cream while watching images of flooding. Tennessee promised to make a donation to hurricane-relief charities. Californians prayed for hurricane victims during their morning breakfast.

Delegates saw an upside to adversity again shortly before noon Monday, when many of them first heard about Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's pregnant daughter. The news broke just before most delegates left their hotels for an abbreviated convention session, which included a speech by first lady Laura Bush, and some said they spent their bus rides in deep political analysis.

Yes, many delegates agreed, it was disappointing that Bristol Palin had become pregnant while still in high school. But the girl made up for her mistake with a mature response that reaffirmed Republican family values and her mother's parenting, delegates said. She told her parents about the pregnancy. She plans to marry the father. She vows to give birth.

"To me, there's really nothing negative about it -- it's a nonissue," said Anne Britton, vice chair of the Republican Party of Arkansas. "One doesn't wish for a child to become a mother so young, but I think we're all proud that she's choosing to go forward. They're demonstrating firsthand that this is a pro-life family. This would only be a big disappointment if they went the other way."

Said Virginia Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling: "It's always unfortunate when something like this happens . . . but it kind of shows there is no difference [between Palin's family] and what any other American family has to deal with."

If the pregnancy becomes a major issue during the rest of the presidential campaign, delegates said, McCain might end up the beneficiary. John Morroni, commissioner of Pinellas County, Fla., heard about the pregnancy in the lobby of his Marriott hotel here and called it, "a potential problem -- for Democrats." An elected official for 16 years, Morroni said personal attacks waged by an opponent or the media only serve to make the victim appear more sympathetic.

"No matter what happens, if I'm Obama I would stay as far away from this as I could and hope it disappears," said Morroni, who calls himself a pro-choice Republican. "This is a private thing. You don't get into peoples' families. To me as a person, I don't care about what your wife did, what your kid did. That kind of talk just turns off voters."

Said Bob Lynn, an Alaska delegate who has worked with Palin: "We're not electing the daughter. She's not a big part of this. We shouldn't even be thinking about this, because we have bigger things to worry about."

At an event in Michigan on Monday, Barack Obama told reporters to "back off" the story and that "people's families are off-limits."

In St. Paul, delegates had little to do but watch and analyze. The brief convention schedule allowed the Kansas delegation to visit the nearby Mall of America, an Arkansas delegate to do her laundry and a group of California delegates to play 18 holes of golf.

The Maryland delegation devoted a substantial portion of a morning breakfast to organizing a phone tree so that delegates would be informed of changes in the convention schedule. Until then, some Maryland delegates joked, most of their plans revolved around eating.

Delegates have learned to be flexible, they said. The Florida group arrived at its convention hotel Sunday night wearing loafers and Hawaiian shirts, ready for a party. Delegates sat at tables in a ballroom and chatted over glasses of wine, discussing the speakers they planned to hear this week. They stood to applaud as Jim Greer, the state party chairman, stepped onto a stage adorned with fake palm trees and a plastic sun.

Then he launched the week's festivities by relaying a full hurricane status report.

"I'm sorry about this," Greer said, "but it looks like our schedule has to change."

Monday's welcome breakfast would become a multi-faith prayer ceremony, Greer said. Tuesday would become "Donation Day," and every delegate would be asked to make a contribution to charity. Thursday's send-off party, the most anticipated event of the week, would be canceled. "But if you want to have a good time," Greer said, "I'm sure you can still sit and have a drink in the hotel bar."

After Greer stepped off the stage, a few of the Florida delegates lingered in the ballroom to mull over the wreckage of their plans. The Floridians knew all too well about hurricanes, and a few mentioned that Gustav might even hit the state's panhandle.

"We've got to think about other people right now," delegate Linda Grier said. "And I think we just have to accept that this whole thing isn't really about us."

Staff writers John Wagner and Anita Kumar contributed to this report.

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