By Michael Abramowitz and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 2, 2008
ST. PAUL, Minn., Sept. 1 -- Republicans plan on resuming their long-planned national convention schedule Tuesday, a day after their opening events were curtailed because of Hurricane Gustav and roiled by their presumptive vice president's announcement that her 17-year-old daughter is five months pregnant.
With the threat posed by Gustav apparently receding, convention officials will return to the business of nominating Sen. John McCain and his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, a McCain campaign official said Monday night.
Palin and her husband told the delegates gathered here that their daughter plans to raise the baby and will marry the father. "Our beautiful daughter Bristol came to us with news that as parents we knew would make her grow up faster than we had ever planned," Palin said in a statement issued Monday by McCain's campaign.. "We're proud of Bristol's decision to have her baby and even prouder to become grandparents. As Bristol faces the responsibilities of adulthood, she knows she has our unconditional love and support."
Coming on the heels of Gustav, which led Republicans to cancel most of their opening-day events, Palin's revelation continued to reshape what Republicans had hoped would be a boisterous send-off for the McCain-Palin ticket. It also left some Republicans privately voicing concern that the campaign may have missed other potentially damaging background information about McCain's little-known pick. Palin arrived in St. Paul on Monday but had no public schedule as she prepared for her speech to the convention.
McCain aides pushed back hard Monday night against any suggestion that they had mishandled the selection process. "Nothing that has come out did not come out in the vet -- she was fully vetted," said a senior campaign adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
Republicans canceled speeches by President Bush and Vice President Cheney and instead staged an abbreviated opening session highlighted by appearances by McCain's wife, Cindy, and first lady Laura Bush. Both urged delegates to contribute to disaster relief.
"Events in the Gulf Coast region have changed the focus of our attention, and our first priority now today is to ensure the safety and the well-being of those living in the Gulf Coast region," the first lady said after receiving a warm ovation from delegates.
Bush scrubbed his speech to the convention delegates Monday because of the storm, but he may address the gathering by satellite video, said two GOP strategists, including one in the McCain campaign.
Both McCain and Sen. Barack Obama, the Democratic nominee, moved to shift their approaches on the campaign trail as Gustav approached the coast. Since Palin was named McCain's vice presidential pick, the running mates have steered clear of partisan rhetoric, stressing reform and trying to package themselves as outsiders.
McCain also shelved a series of rallies intended to introduce Palin and to serve as a prelude to her Wednesday debut in St. Paul. His only public appearance Monday was at a volunteer organization in Waterville, Ohio, where he helped pack supplies to be sent to the Gulf Coast. Later in the day, he met privately with Cardinal Justin Rigali, archbishop of Philadelphia.
During an appearance in Detroit, Obama set aside his standard stump speech and urged supporters to "give what you can" to the American Red Cross to help with relief efforts. "Today's not a day for political speeches," he told a large crowd gathered on a downtown plaza for an annual Labor Day parade. "There's a time for us to argue politics, but there's a time for us to come together as Americans."
Obama also found himself drawn into the discussion of Bristol Palin's pregnancy, telling reporters to "back off" the family.
"I have said before and I will repeat again: I think people's families are off-limits," he said. "People's children are especially off-limits. This shouldn't be part of our politics. It has no relevance to Governor Palin's performance as a governor or her potential performance as a vice president. So I would strongly urge people to back off these kinds of stories."
He continued: "You know, my mother had me when she was 18. How family deals with issues and teenage children, that shouldn't be the topic of our politics. I hope that anybody who's supported me understands that's off-limits."
McCain campaign officials said the Palin family's statement was prompted in part by a spate of Internet rumors suggesting that Bristol Palin was actually the mother of Sarah Palin's 4-month-old son, Trig. They denounced the rumors and went on the offensive Monday morning when the news of Bristol Palin's pregnancy surfaced.
Late Monday morning, as the news was traveling through the convention hall, senior adviser Steve Schmidt and McCain confidant Mark Salter waded into the media center for informal conversations with reporters but were soon surrounded by journalists. The two conducted an impromptu 25-minute news conference, at which Schmidt was peppered with questions about when and what the campaign knew about the pregnancy.
McCain's team hit back at reporters' questions about the vetting process, and warned that Democrats would risk a major backlash if they tried to discredit Palin or diminish McCain as a result of her daughter's situation.
"It's a private family matter. Life happens in families," Schmidt said. "If people try to politicize this, the American people will be appalled by it. The fact is that the American people, who are decent people, don't appreciate intrusions into the private space of good families."
But some Republicans remained nervous about the party's ticket, worrying about the potential for more surprises in the days ahead. "Palin's daughter's pregnancy is probably much ado about nothing -- I think," one GOP strategist said. "If there's more, it will raise questions about the whole vetting process because she's such an unknown."
Another McCain loyalist said he doubts the controversy will last. "It came out in the vetting, and if that's true, then the vetting worked," he said. "If that's not true, then I would have concerns."
But McCain supporters are encouraged that leaders of the Christian right are rallying behind Palin and her family. Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said in a statement: "We are committed to praying for Bristol and her husband-to-be and the entire Palin family as they walk through a very private matter in the eyes of the public."
Karl Rove, a former top political adviser to President Bush, played down the political fallout from the situation.
"A lot of Americans know families, if not their own, that have seen something like this," he said in an interview. "The question is: How does the family deal with it? What they have said is that she is going to carry the child to term and that she and the father are going to be married. A lot of people will look at this and put it through the filter of their own experiences and know that there are a lot of different ways families deal with it, and I think this will be seen at the end of the day as laudatory."
McCain campaign officials dismissed questions about whether there were serious second thoughts about the choice of Palin as his running mate. "There's a real solid sense of what our mission is," one official said.
The official then added: "We dealt with it like adults and kept our eye on the ball. She's working on her speech. The plan for the campaign that was drawn up before she was picked is being buttoned up and adapted to her strengths. We're about our business. We're introducing her to the American public and with that comes inquiries. . . . You've got a bunch of pros who've been through this."
McCain's team continued to express confidence that the choice of Palin will be seen as sound and politically smart. "She is, by any objective measure, more experienced and more accomplished than Senator Obama," Schmidt said.
Staff writers Robert Barnes, Shailagh Murray and Michael D. Shear contributed to this report.