ST. PAUL, Minn._ Republicans on Sunday dramatically changed the tenor and schedule of the party's national convention, canceling all opening day business Monday except for routine matters, as Hurricane Gustav bore down on the Gulf Coast.
"This is a time when we have to do away with our party politics and we have to act as Americans," presumptive GOP nominee John McCain said. President Bush and Vice President Cheney cancelled their appearances, slated for Monday, and corporate sponsors were urged to tone down their events and help raise money for storm relief efforts.
The convention will begin Monday at 3 p.m. central time, adopt rules and the party platform, and adjourn, probably by 5:30.
"We're going to suspend all our activities tomorrow except those absolutely necessary," McCain told a St. Paul news conference by video hookup.
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Tuesday's program is to feature keynote speaker Rudolph Giuliani, the former New York City mayor, but no decisions have been made about whether that will proceed. "There's no pattern as to how we'll react to this," said McCain campaign manager Rick Davis. Convention decisions will be made day-to-day as the consequences from Hurricane Gustav emerge.
McCain, Democratic rival Barack Obama and especially Bush are not only eager to show compassion but also to demonstrate that they can handle a potentially devastating storm.
Matthew T. Corrigan, a political science professor at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, who monitors the politics of hurricanes, said that McCain and the Republican Party see their response to Gustav as a way to help wash away the stain of the Bush administration's response to Hurricane Katrina.
"You've got to strike a balance," Corrigan said. "You've got to have the convention, but you've got to pay attention to the situation. I don't think anybody will criticize the (Republican) party."
Canceling the first night of the convention certainly will not hurt McCain, added Terry Madonna, professor of political science at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa.
"On a Labor Day evening, how many viewers were they going to get anyway?" he asked.
Corrigan did see political benefit for both McCain and Obama, since people rely heavily on government for a quick, competent response to natural disasters.
"It's one instance where everyone believes in government action, whether you're a conservative or a liberal," Corrigan said.
Bush, whose job approval ratings never recovered after his widely criticized handling of Hurricane Katrina's devastation in 2005, was trying this time to show that he was more engaged. Early Sunday he visited Federal Emergency Management Administration headquarters in Washington.
"I will not be going to Minnesota for the Republican National Convention," the president said. Instead, he will head for Texas to visit with the Emergency Operations Center in Austin, where federal, state and local officials are coordinating hurricane relief efforts.
Bush said he wouldn't immediately go to Louisiana, which is expected to be hit hardest, because "I do not want my visit to impede in any way the response of our emergency personnel."
In St. Paul, convention officials provided charter flights to carry delegates from affected areas home. As of late Sunday, about a dozen had accepted the offer.
Ricky Roberie, a Louisiana delegate, stayed in St. Paul, explaining that "the convention needs to go on. We need to get our candidate elected."
But Rene Diaz, a Texas delegate, thought McCain should make his acceptance speech from the hurricane zone, and Molly White, another Texas delegate, said the convention must "proceed with caution."
McCain toured the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency operations center in Jackson, accompanied by presumptive vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin. They walked through the crisis center and saw five huge screens on the wall, including one showing the projected path of the hurricane and another containing information such as evacuation plans.
Democrats have been issuing reminders about Bush's 2005 performance since late last week.
Democratic nominee Obama indicated that he would not visit the Gulf Coast before Gustav hits, lest his presence distract public-safety officials from storm-related tasks. Instead, he said he is preparing to use a list of perhaps 2 million campaign backers, probably asking them to volunteer or send money or supplies, once local officials determine what's needed.
"A big storm like this raises bipartisan concerns," Obama said, "and I think for John (McCain) to want to find out what's going on is fine.
"The thing that I always am concerned about in the middle of a storm is whether we're drawing resources away from folks on the ground because the Secret Service and various security requirements, sometimes it pulls police, fire and other departments away from concentrating on the job," Obama said. "I'm assuming that where he went that wasn't an issue."
However, the Democrat said, "we're going to try to stay clear of the area until things have settled down and then we'll probably try to figure out how we can be as helpful as possible."
Obama said he spoke to FEMA Director David Paulison Saturday, and that Paulison "seemed confident about having positioned for example buses on the ground ahead of time as opposed to waiting after the storm to try to get buses in.
" There appears to be better coordination between the state and the city in Louisiana. I haven't spoken to folks in Mississippi or Alabama. It appears there is coordination between the four states that there wasn't last time."
Margaret Talev contributed to this story from Ohio with the Obama campaign. Interns Shawn Boonstra, Natasha Ludwig, and Lindsey Lanzendorfer contributed from St. Paul.
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