Hurricane Gustav's political fallout: a subdued GOP convention

Photos by Mary Knox Merrill/Staff
Louisiana GOP delegates Bob Ellis (left) and Stephen Gele donned red ribbons Sunday to symbolize that their hearts and thoughts were with Gulf Coast residents, bracing for hurricane Gustav.
GOP delegate Roy Roberts

Forget the funny hats, glitzy parties, and rousing, partisan speeches. The sober business of hurricane Gustav – though making landfall 1,200 miles away from the Twin Cities – has sent the 2008 Republican National Convention into uncharted territory.

What normally would have been a four-day extravaganza advertising the GOP ticket of John McCain and Sarah Palin has been downsized, at least early in the week, into a bare-bones affair. The Republicans could not afford to appear insensitive to the plight of the nation's Gulf Coast.

"There's nothing to gain from politics as usual," says John Zogby, an independent pollster.

Many actors face crucial tests this week: President Bush, months away from leaving office, has an opportunity to redeem himself from the missteps of hurricane Katrina three years ago. Although local and state officials shared in the blame, Mr. Bush appeared asleep at the wheel and his presidency never really recovered.

Senator McCain and Alaska's Governor Palin, who was just named to the ticket last Friday, needed to appear engaged in the response effort and above politics. Sunday morning, they headed to the Gulf region for a briefing and to call on Americans to volunteer or donate money. "America needs us now, no matter whether we are Republican or Democrat," said McCain, who has made service a central campaign theme.

Barack Obama, the Democratic nominee, and his running mate Joseph Biden also needed to adopt a serious, apolitical posture. Like McCain, Senator Obama received official briefings on the storm and said he would send a mass e-mail to supporters urging them to get involved in relief efforts.

At any point, if either presidential ticket is seen as trying to gain political advantage from the situation, that could backfire seriously. But with just a little more than two months until Election Day, the political ramifications are unavoidable. For McCain, there's no avoiding the fact that the "frame" of the convention is a Gulf Coast hurricane that looks eerily similar to the one that devastated New Orleans and the Louisiana and Mississippi coasts three years ago almost to the day. Even if preparation and relief go better than during Katrina, which they are bound to do, all the talk about Katrina brings back unhappy memories of government incompetence.

Still, says Republican pollster Frank Luntz, there could be an upside for McCain. "If Bush does a great job, then McCain is affected," he said. But the flip side is also true: Another botched federal effort, and McCain suffers – all because he's got an R (for Republican) after his name.

Gustav already appears to have given McCain a political gift: Bush and Vice President Cheney canceled their Monday night speeches, and they are not likely to attend the convention at all. The absence of these unpopular figures helps McCain distance himself from them.

The naming of Governor Palin to the ticket, a vocal social conservative, "already fired up the troops," says Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. With Bush and Cheney absent, "it will be harder to make the 'McSame' charge."

But there's a big downside to losing four solid nights of television coverage that amounts to an infomercial, especially in the wake of the Democrats' successful convention last week.

"He doesn't get a chance, when all of America is listening, to provide an unedited commentary about what he believes and what he wants to do," Mr. Luntz told reporters after conducting a focus group of undecided voters here in Minneapolis. "It is a huge loss for him personally, but it could be a success for the GOP if – and this is a big if – they handle the tragedy effectively."

In a way, Gustav is doing to McCain what McCain did to Obama. By announcing his surprise running mate the morning after Obama's acceptance speech, nearly all discussion of the Obama grand finale ceased as the political world scrambled to learn more about Palin and analyze the meaning of her selection. Whether a muted Republican convention can grab public attention beyond the GOP base remains to be seen. The severity of the storm will determine just how subdued Republicans need to remain for the rest of the week.

In the early going, at least, no one was taking any chances – either canceling events altogether or rebranding them. On Monday night, the "Political Chicks A Go-go" late-night party, sponsored by RightNOW!, Lifetime Networks, and others was retooled into a fundraiser for the Red Cross hurricane-relief fund. The Democratic National Committee canceled a reception for the media on Sunday and a "More of the Same" rally on Monday.

A number of Republican governors also announced they weren't coming to the GOP convention. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger bowed out, citing a state budget dispute. All the governors of states in the hurricane's path also announced they weren't coming: Bobby Jindal of Louisiana (a rising star the party was hoping to showcase during prime time), Haley Barbour of Mississippi, Rick Perry of Texas, Bob Riley of Alabama, and Charlie Crist of Florida.

Numerous Republican members of the House and Senate facing tough reelection challenges had already announced they weren't coming, such as Sens. John Sununu of New Hampshire and Gordon Smith of Oregon.

Some delegates from the Gulf region opted to head home, instead of staying for the convention, but others felt it important to stay and help nominate McCain and Palin. If nothing else, the convention must adopt the party platform and formally nominate the GOP ticket.

"I do hate it that we're having a hurricane during the time of the meeting, but that's unavoidable," says Roy Roberts, a delegate from Houston. "I just hope that everything turns out all right – here and there.... So we'll blow our whistles and toot our horns and hope our man wins."

– Staffer Mary Knox Merrill contributed to this report.

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