The traditional festive opening of a national political convention was overshadowed by cancellations Monday, as John McCain and GOP officials tried to balance the desire to invigorate their partisans with showing empathy for those in Hurricane Gustav’s path.
Monday’s seven-hour program was pared back to roughly three, all of it strictly business and none of it in prime time. Network anchors who had planned to be in Minnesota instead were dispatched to the Gulf Coast. Democrats stood down in the war room they’d established to give rapid response to the Republicans.
And the delegates themselves shifted their gaze from the convention podium to their relatives, friends and neighbors along the Gulf Coast.
McCain, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, urged delegates to take off their "Republican hats" and put on "American hats," shifting their organizing and fundraising power from party politics to the needs of the evacuees.
"I know you’ll agree with me," he said. "It’s time to open our hearts, our efforts and our wallets, our concern, our care, for those American citizens who are now under the shadow and the possibility of a natural disaster," the senator said.
Mike Hubbard, chairman of the Alabama Republican Party, predicted the GOP convention would be "a little less of a party, celebratory and partisan show, like you saw last week on television with the Democrats, because of what is going on. Everybody understands it, understands the magnitude of it."
Undeterred, protesters planned to go forward with a peace march that had been expected to draw 50,000 people to the state capital.
"Our voices will be front and center, and it will be the main news that is happening," said Jess Sundin, spokeswoman for the Coalition to March on the RNC and Stop the War.
McCain saw his own pre-convention momentum blunted by public focus on the massive storm. Gustav headed toward the Gulf Coast on Sunday, as more than 1 million Americans made wary by Hurricane Katrina took buses, trains, planes and cars out of New Orleans and other coastal cities. Gustav packed winds near 115 mph (185 kph), and forecasters said it could gain strength before making landfall Monday.
Mindful that President Bush and the Republican Party lost credibility after the federal government’s botched response to Hurricane Katrina three years ago, McCain and new running mate Sarah Palin visited Mississippi on Sunday in advance of the storm and promised swift recovery efforts.
"I have every expectation that we will not see the mistakes of Katrina repeated; in fact, I’m very optimistic that we will see a degree of cooperation and effort on behalf of any victims, of anyone whose lives are touched by this great natural disaster," McCain later told reporters in St. Paul via satellite from St. Louis.
The Arizona senator said the remainder of the convention schedule would depend on the destruction caused by the storm. He raised the possibility of accepting the nomination on Thursday in a Gulf Coast speech beamed back to the delegates 1,000 miles to the north.
Barack Obama, for his part, received a briefing Sunday from Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. The Illinois senator, who has smashed all fundraising records during his presidential campaign, also pledged to use his vast supporter e-mail list to raise money and provide goods for those affected by the storm.
He also said he might visit storm-damaged areas once things have "settled down."
The storm and the political changes it brought came just as Republicans were ready to uncork their quadrennial celebration.
The Xcel Energy Center, home to NHL hockey’s Minnesota Wild, has been converted into a massive television studio, its floor covered in bright red carpet and one-third of its width filled with a video backdrop behind the podium from which McCain was to speak.
Nets full of red, white and blue balloons hung overhead but hanging in the air was the question of whether they would ever fall.
Republican National Committee Chairman Robert "Mike" Duncan said that by law, the convention had to be called to order on Monday. In addition, a quorum of at least half plus one of the 2,400 delegates was needed to conduct business such as securing a report of the Credentials Committee, adopting the convention’s rules, electing the convention’s officer and adopting the party’s platform.
A quorum is also needed to formally nominate both McCain and Palin, although they would not have to be onsite to accept their nominations.
McCain advisers tried to remain upbeat as they made the best of a bad — and unprecedented — situation.
"You thought the 2000 recount was the most unusual thing you’d ever see in politics," said veteran GOP operative and McCain adviser Charlie Black. "Maybe not."