RNC Opens on Subdued Note

Partisanship Put on Hold

Posted September 1, 2008 at 7:39pm

Republicans kicked off their presidential nominating convention Monday with a vastly scaled-back program, one that focused on directing charitable support and prayers to the residents of the Gulf Coast region who are being affected by Hurricane Gustav.

First lady Laura Bush and Cindy McCain, the wife of presumptive GOP presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), were the featured guests during the abbreviated afternoon session. Convention planners scrapped the previously scheduled program on Sunday in deference to Gustav, which made landfall in Louisiana on Monday morning.

Bush and Cindy McCain appeared as part of an effort to highlight the work of the Republican governors in the states most affected by the storm and to direct delegates to charities that support the relief efforts in the region.

Their appearances were designed to bring a somber tone to what would have ordinarily been a jubilant start to the four-day party in the Twin Cities that is scheduled to culminate Thursday night when Sen. McCain delivers his acceptance speech. Instead, Monday’s program left out any background music, campaign placards or partisan messages.

“The effect of Hurricane Gustav is just now being measured,” Bush told the audience of GOP faithful. “When such events occur, we are reminded that first, we are all Americans — and that our shared American ideals will always transcend political parties and partisanship.”

The first lady received a warm welcome with sustained applause, cheers and a standing ovation from convention delegates when she appeared on stage. She was one of several headliners originally scheduled for the Monday night program, which was to feature addresses by President Bush and Vice President Cheney.

Cindy McCain echoed her husband’s calls for delegates to “take off our Republican hats and put on our American hats” as residents of the Gulf deal with the storm’s fallout.

Laura Bush introduced a video that featured four governors from Gulf region states whose appearances at the convention had to be curtailed because of the storm. The first lady noted that all four — Alabama Gov. Bob Riley, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and Texas Gov. Rick Perry — as well as Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal — are Republicans. Jindal did not appear in the pre-taped video.

“You’re seeing Republican governors in Republican states I think do a fabulous job of taking care of their citizens,” Perry said.

Barbour, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee in the mid-1990s, expressed his regret for having to miss the event but added that he hoped the convention delegates would understand why he needed to stay home.

On the convention floor, Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.) was empathetic toward the scaled-back effort.

“It’s disappointing for Republicans here in Minneapolis-St. Paul, but it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “We’ve seen what damage can be done.”

The convention schedule for the balance of the week remained up in the air as of late Monday. Party officials continued to meet throughout the day — with one eye on television coverage of Gustav’s path of destruction — and were growing more hopeful that they would be able to move ahead with the regular program, although likely with toned-down speeches and a continued emphasis on public service and fundraising for the Gulf Coast.

Even if the party gets restarted Tuesday night, the schedule, speakers and content will be significantly altered.

At least some speakers have been told they won’t be speaking Tuesday night, including House Republican Conference Chairman Adam Putnam (Fla.), although Putnam said there is a chance he could be rescheduled for later in the week.

As delegates started to grow more antsy for what they had traveled across the country for — nominating their candidate and making their case to the nation — Rep. David Dreier (Calif.), the convention parliamentarian, said he hoped Gustav’s rapid weakening would enable a restart of the convention program.

Dreier said he and RNC Chairman Mike Duncan had for years talked about the contingency of a hurricane hitting during the convention, and new rules drafted after Hurricane Katrina give the RNC the ability to adopt any method of proceeding with the nomination as it deems fit.

“We’re gratified to see the storm downgrade to a Category 1, and we obviously came here for and want to hold our convention,” Dreier said. But he and the McCain campaign cautioned that decisions on what to do Tuesday night would wait until Tuesday morning.

“Meetings are going on all the time,” he said.

Dreier acknowledged that juggling the schedule has been a challenge, but “it’s nothing like the challenge that the people on the Gulf Coast are facing.”

South Carolina delegates were considering whether to make an early trip home for hurricane preparations of their own, with the National Hurricane Center showing Hurricane Hanna projected to hit near the South Carolina-Georgia border on Friday.

“We’ll continue to monitor it,” said Bobby Harrell, Speaker of the South Carolina House of Representatives. Harrell is a State Farm agent who remembers Hurricane Hugo’s impact on South Carolina and represents Charleston in the Legislature. He said coastal delegates are considering an early return home on Thursday depending on the storm’s path.

Before hearing from Laura Bush and Cindy McCain, Republicans took care of several convention business items.

House Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio) was approved as permanent chairman of the convention, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) was approved as temporary chairman, although McConnell was not present for Monday’s session. Members of Boehner’s escort committee, a largely ceremonial role, were also approved and the list included Republicans Rep. Tom Latham (Iowa) and Sens. Saxby Chambliss (Ga.) and Richard Burr (N.C.).

Rep. Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) and Burr, co-chairmen of the platform committee, submitted the party plan for adoption and made brief remarks.

McCarthy lauded the 2008 platform as a “21st century” document, noting that this year’s version is a slimmed down from what was previously 40,000 words.

“We’ve created a modern platform that’s half as wordy but twice as bold,” McCarthy said. “For those who say there really is no difference between the parties, this platform will prove them wrong.”

Duncan called the party’s 39th quadrennial nominating convention to order Monday afternoon just before 3 p.m.

In his opening remarks, Duncan asked the GOP delegates to keep those in Louisiana and other areas affected by the hurricane in mind and then asked that they take out their cell phone and donate directly to the Red Cross relief efforts by texting “GIVE” to the address “2HELP.”

The campaign of Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) also sent a similar text message to supporters Monday asking that they donate to the Red Cross.

Nathan L. Gonzales contributed to this report.