GOP party off to a rough start

Republicans set aside the agenda to focus on hurricane relief in the opening hours of their national convention, only to see the scaled-back program for Day One overshadowed by jarring disclosures about the family and work life of John McCain’s running mate, Sarah Palin.

Republicans were eager to get the convention back on a more conventional track Tuesday, but the program was in flux. Officials said it was likely to include more overt speechmaking than the opening day, when Laura Bush and Cindy McCain headlined as the hurricane-focused public face of the party.

The Gulf Coast storm had already thrown water on the convention’s official start when Palin disclosed that her unmarried 17-year-old daughter was pregnant. The news was followed by the announcement that a private lawyer had been hired to represent the Alaska governor in a state investigation into her firing of the state’s public safety commissioner.

For a second day Tuesday, Palin had no public events scheduled. Her only public comments Monday came in a brief statement with her husband about their daughter’s pregnancy and decision to marry the father.

"We’re proud of Bristol’s decision to have her baby and even prouder to become grandparents," the statement said.

The man who led McCain’s search for a vice-presidential nominee said he thought all the possible red flags unearthed during the background check had now been made public.

The disclosures about Palin on Monday threatened to detract from what was already a stripped-down opening day of the convention.

Under the weight of Gustav, speeches were light on red-meat rhetoric and heavy with appeals for donations to victims of the Gulf Coast storm, which was the main message in brief remarks from Laura Bush and her would-be successor.

"This is a time when we take off our Republican hats and put on our American hats," said Cindy McCain.

Added the first lady, "Our first priority for today and in the coming days is to ensure the safety and well-being of those living in the Gulf Coast region."

McCain’s Democratic opponent, Barack Obama, also appealed to his supporters, asking them in a mass e-mail and text message to donate to the Red Cross. His schedule for the rest of the week was also up in the air as he returned to Chicago headquarters to monitor the storm’s aftermath.

The mood on the floor as the convention began its official activities was muted and more businesslike than usual, delegates said. Some said they were eager for the politics to resume.

"If things turn out to be not so bad as we had expected, things probably will go back to a more normal agenda," said Grace Hickman, an Oklahoma delegate. "I would like for us to be able to have a more complete convention, like the Democrats had theirs, but we also have to think about the country and the people in Louisiana."

White House officials held out the possibility President Bush would make a televised address to the convention from Washington. The decision on Bush’s role, if any, appeared to rest with the McCain campaign, which has tried to distance the Arizona senator from the unpopular president.

Outside the Xcel Energy Center where the convention officially began, police contended with thousands of protesters, some of whom attacked a group of Connecticut delegates.

Others smashed cars, punctured tires and threw bottles, while many marched peacefully in a gathering that was initially conceived as an anti-war demonstration. Police arrested a few protesters for lighting a trash container on fire and pushing it into a police car.

The debate about the Iraq war — a chief issue in the presidential race — was largely avoided in the Republican party platform adopted during the opening session. The platform said "the waging of war — and the achieving of peace — should never be micromanaged in a party platform. … In dealing with present conflicts or future crises, our next president must preserve all options."

The war was likely to get a second day of attention outside the convention on Tuesday as Ron Paul, a former GOP presidential candidate who opposes the war, was expected to speak to supporters at a Minneapolis rally. Separately, a group advocating for the poor was planning a protest march toward the convention center.