Hurricane Gustav causes GOP to tone down convention

McCain might skip the four-day gathering completely, says convention chair Boehner.

Mary Knox Merrill/Staff
GOP convention chair John Boehner is urging delegates and voters to offer relief to hurricane victims if Gustav hits the Gulf Coast.

St. Paul, Minn. – The Republican National Convention will scrap the marquee events of its opening night Monday out of respect for possible victims of a major hurricane expected to strike the Gulf Coast, the convention’s chairman said Sunday.

“The convention is going to be handled on a day to day basis,” House minority leader John Boehner announced at a lunch for news media here hosted by The Christian Science Monitor.

He raised the possibility of other cancellations at the four-day gathering, including the prospect that Sen. John McCain, the presumed Republican presidential nominee, would skip it altogether to keep the focus on the Gulf Coast as hurricane Gustav closes in.

“It’s kind of hard to talk about the message of the convention or the message of the fall campaign given what we’re dealing with,” said Representative Boehner, an Ohio Republican. “We’re all hopeful that Senator McCain will be here, will be able to address the delegates and the nation on Thursday night. But that call will be made later in the week.”

The announcement – with more details expected later Sunday – came just hours after the White House said that President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney had canceled speaking roles here Monday. The news was an early sign of just how much of a distraction the hurricane could become in a week meant to rally Republicans for a tough fight for the White House in November.

Boehner said that Republican leaders would ask delegates, voters, and other supporters to turn their attention to raising money and offering other relief to the Gulf Coast in the hurricane’s aftermath.

He said Republicans would still take up some housekeeping business Monday afternoon – such as the adoption of a platform and rules ­– but that the main speeches and other celebratory portions of the program would be set aside.

“There’s a disaster about to hit our country – our first concern ought to be with the people who are in the path of this potential disaster,” he said. “We can deal with our convention and deal with our message in a way that puts them first…. Everyone will have to modify their plans in terms of how we deliver our message about John McCain.”

In addition to its obvious capacity for human devastation, the hurricane injects a host of political complications into to what was supposed to be a week of celebrations and party-building. The sight of thousands of people fleeing New Orleans three years after hurricane Katrina is a searing reminder of what critics have said was the Bush administration’s failed response to the 2005 disaster.

By toning down the festivities this week, McCain, who has denounced the Katrina response, can further define himself against Bush as a leader who puts people before politics. But if the hurricane turns into a replay of Katrina, it could refocus national attention on the Republican administration’s shortcomings in 2005.

Boehner said that by driving up oil and gas prices, the hurricane would underscore the strengths of McCain’s so-called “all of the above” energy plan, with its mix of new offshore drilling, nuclear power, and market incentives for alternative fuels. “The energy issue is not going to go away,” he said.

Addressing concerns about McCain’s vice presidential pick, Boehner said that Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin had more executive experience than Sen. Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential nominee, and his running mate, Sen. Joseph Biden, combined.

Ms. Palin was elected Alaska’s governor in 2006 after two terms as a small-town mayor. Senator Obama was an Illinois state lawmaker for eight years before his election to the US Senate in 2004; Biden, of Delaware, was first elected to the Senate in 1972.

Boehner dismissed questions about Palin’s foreign-policy credentials and fitness for the White House as “elitist.”

“It’s this elitist attitude that … if you’re not a Washington insider, you can’t possibly know anything about what it’s going to take to be president,” he said.

He compared the readiness to lead the United States to the first day of anybody’s new job.

“When you got it, you thought, ‘... How am I going to do this?’ ” he said. “Nobody’s qualified on the first day. I don’t care whether it’s Barack Obama or whether it’s John McCain sitting in the White House.

“But like all of us, we grow into our new roles,” he added. “And I have no doubts that John McCain is going to grow into his new role as the president of the United States very well. I have no doubts that Sarah Palin can grow in her role as vice president and be entirely capable of being president.”

Asked about the significance of a party now led by its “mavericks,” Boehner said the “reformist streak” is an appropriate response to the party’s recent political troubles.

“You know, they threw us out and frankly, we should have lost,” he said, alluding to the 2006 elections that cost Republicans control of Congress. “And the only way we can get back is if we earn our way back. And that means showing people we’ve learned our lessons.”

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