ST PAUL, Minnesota // Republicans suspended most opening-day activities at their national convention yesterday, as John McCain, the presumptive nominee, called on the thousands gathered here to "take off our Republican hats and put on our American hats" and assist the Gulf Coast states in Hurricane Gustav's path. The convention was still set to convene in the afternoon, as scheduled, but only for an abbreviated session to conduct essential party business, said Rick Davis, Mr McCain's campaign manager.
All scheduled speeches, including those of George W Bush and Dick Cheney, the vice president, both of whom called off trips here on account of the storm, were also cancelled. Speaking at a news conference on Sunday via satellite hookup from Missouri, Mr McCain said that partisan politics - normally the meat and potatoes of every convention - should be set aside and that it was time for Americans to "open our hearts" and "our wallets" to help those threatened by the storm.
The party planned to assist in raising money for hurricane relief efforts, tapping into the wealth of corporations that are sponsoring the convention as well as other individual Republican donors. It was unclear what, if any, convention activities would take place today. Mr Davis said decisions would be made on a day-by-day basis depending on the severity and effects of the storm. "Our top priority is to assist those who will be affected by Hurricane Gustav," Mr Davis said.
"This is not a time for politics or celebration; it is a time for us to come together as Americans and assist the residents of the gulf states." "Hopefully we can restore some of the activities that are based in the convention programme, but I cannot make any promise beyond [Monday] what's going to be in the programme," he said. At the very least this week, the party will conduct the business it is required by law to do, including the adoption of the party platform and the official nomination of both Mr McCain and Sarah Palin, the governor of Alaska and his running mate. But it seemed unlikely that any real semblance of the convention so long in the making would be able to take place; Republicans wished to do anything possible to avoid seeming out of touch and insensitive, lest they invoke comparisons to Mr Bush and his wholly inadequate handling of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Mr Davis said it was too early to say whether the Arizona senator would be in St Paul to deliver his acceptance speech, originally planned for Thursday night. The candidate could give his remarks from somewhere in the Gulf Coast region. The prospect of turning the convention into a kind of national call to service to help victims of Gustav - even for just a day or two out of the four - left many here unsure what to do with schedules full of luncheons, festive receptions and concerts, including a convention "kick-off" featuring the Beach Boys. And even though they were not saying so from behind any podium, it also left many wondering how the lack of a true political convention would impact the party's chances in November. Democrats spent all last week celebrating their candidate, Barack Obama, whose acceptance speech was viewed by an estimated 38 million people, and knocking down Mr McCain. The storm stripped the party of one of its best chances to do the same to Mr Obama and eclipsed what would have been several straight days of free prime-time media coverage of Mr McCain, Mrs Palin and their ticket's message. Instead, on the eve of the gathering, TV networks and cable news channels were broadcasting non-stop radar images of the swirling storm as it approached the United States, showing clogged roadways as residents evacuated from Louisiana, Alabama, Texas and elsewhere in the region. The storm posed a test of whether the Bush administration could deliver an emergency response that was effective, comprehensive and swift - everything the response to Katrina was not. But it also posed a test - and an opportunity - of sorts for Mr McCain, who in April told residents of New Orleans that such a "disgraceful" response would never occur again. Suddenly, even though he was not in charge of it, Mr McCain's words were being tested, too. He seized the chance to do what a president might: travel to the region to oversee preparations. And he explained, in sober language, that the political convention - his political convention - took a far back seat to the needs of those affected by the storm. And with that, the entire situation unwittingly played right into the convention's very theme, "Country First". @email:firstname.lastname@example.org