Republican Convention preparations

The weather in St. Paul this Sunday morning is bright and beautiful as the party faithful gather for the Republican National Convention here.

But because of the weather in the Gulf Coast, the precise nature of the upcoming convention is uncertain with party leaders still figuring out how to alter their plans as a result of Hurricane Gustav. The McCain campaign is reportedly pondering options that include canceling a day of the gathering, using some portion of the convention to raise funds for storm victims, or toning down social events surrounding the gathering.

Meanwhile the Monitor convention team is converging on St Paul. Linda Feldmann, Ariel Sabar, photographers Melanie Stetson Freeman and Mary Knox Merrill, and I arrived somewhat bleary eyed from the Democratic Convention in Denver. Fresh troops, including deputy national editor Laurent Belsie, eminence gris Peter Grier, and web producer Pat Murphy will also be on hand.

On Saturday, I met with the Monitor’s convention technical guru, Paul Doherty, who was busy putting the final touches on our workspace in the Wilkins Center, which adjoins the Xcel Energy Center, where the convention will be held. At each political convention, office space for journalists is built out of metal piping and blue curtains. Invariably, some portion of the electronic infrastructure we order from the party planners does not arrive or is misconfigured. Then the ever calm and cheerful Mr. Doherty works his wonders.

Denver, a thriving, visitor-friendly city, was very much in lockdown mode during the Democratic convention, with police on most corners and SUVs cruising the city with a squad of cops equipped with riot gear standing on the running boards. There is a police presence here as well but so far not as obtrusive. One common theme in both cities: a fleet of black hybrid SUVs provided by General Motors.

For the Monitor team – and for most of our print colleagues from other newspapers– this year’s two conventions mark a pronounced new focus on coverage for the Web. Jimmy Orr, the Monitor’s online editor, is blogging nearly continuously. And the rest of us are also marching to a faster, Web-centered beat.

For example, stories triggered by Monitor newsmaker breakfasts that we host at the conventions used to come out in the next day’s paper. Now, reporters tap away on their laptops during the meal and hit the send button as soon as the guest is done speaking. For the first time, the Monitor is also posting video excerpts of our convention breakfasts to give those who are interested a fuller flavor of the event.

Parties for the media thrown by corporations in the host city are one political convention constant. In earlier days, only selected journalists were invited. Now, anyone with a preconvention press credential can attend. In Denver, the party was at a local amusement park where games had been adjusted so even a congenital klutz (of which the journalism field has its fair share) could win multiple stuffed animals.

Here, getting to the party required leaving St. Paul and taking a $30 cab ride to Minneapolis for a party by the Mississippi River in a site dominated by the architecturally striking, multilevel Guthrie Theater. The floor-to-ceiling windows on all sides of the structure’s ninth floor offered striking views of both Minneapolis and St Paul.

All manner of fancy hors d’oeuvres were being passed – or available on tables – for the several thousand guests at the party. There was no danger anyone would be thirsty, either. Much of the food was quite elegant. But if you were looking for amusement watching your fellow guests, it was hard to top the table of roasted corn – supplied with a bucket of butter into which the local delicacy was to be plunged.

It was hard not to feel a bit uncomfortable watching a hoard of journalists chowing down on free food provided by the city they will be writing about all week.

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