The Democrats had their fun in Denver — but due to the approach of Hurricane Gustav, the Republicans have had to radically rethink their gathering this week. The Republican National Convention is still slated to kick off in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area on Monday (September 1), albeit with much less celebration and politicking leading up to the nomination of Senator John McCain as the party’s candidate, along with the GOP’s first-ever female vice-presidential nominee Alaska Governor Sarah Palin .
As it became clear over the weekend that Gustav was headed straight for the New Orleans area — some of which is still recovering from 2005’s devastating Hurricane Katrina — the party went into crisis mode and decided to overhaul the convention in an effort to avoid images of Republicans celebrating and engaging in political gamesmanship during a natural disaster.
“This is a time when we have to do away with our party politics, and we have to act as Americans,” McCain said at a campaign stop in St. Louis, Missouri, on Sunday. “We have to join the 300 million other Americans on behalf of our fellow citizens. It’s a time for action. So, we’re going to suspend most of our activities tomorrow, except for those absolutely necessary.”
As a result, the first day of the quadrennial event, which runs through Thursday night, was all but scrapped on Sunday afternoon and stripped down to nothing more than the essential business of the convention. A heavy-hitting roster of anticipated addresses from President Bush, First Lady Laura Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger were all canceled, and attendees will participate only in calling the convention to order, adopting the party platform and getting a report from the credentials committee. Rather than open at 3 p.m. Central Time and go until 9:30 or 10 p.m., Monday’s activities will likely only last until 5:30 p.m.
After last week’s DNC gave Barack Obama an expected bump —between six and eight points according to most polls — the RNC represented McCain’s best opportunity to rally the Republican troops around his campaign. The addition to his ticket of relatively unknown Palin, who has strong conservative credentials, had energized the party and would likely have provided for good political theater, but McCain said on Sunday that now was not the time to engage in politics.
“We must redirect our efforts from the really celebratory event of the nomination of president and vice president of our party to acting as all Americans,” he said, according to CNN. Though organizers have not yet decided what the rest of the week will look like, it’s possible that the speeches and activities of the rest of the convention could change as well, depending on the impact of Gustav. McCain also suggested that the convention could be overhauled from a political gathering to a service event that would be a “call to the nation for action.”
“I pledge that tomorrow night, and if necessary, throughout our convention … to act as Americans, not Republicans, because America needs us now, no matter whether we are Republican or Democrat,” McCain said.
According to Fox News, the GOP was also considering asking corporations that have planned parties during the convention to turn them into fundraisers for the Red Cross and other relief organizations.
The overall theme of the convention was supposed to be “Country First,” with each day keyed to a similar theme that reflects the trajectory of McCain’s life. So far, the theme has not been tossed out, but it too will likely feel the impact of the severity of Gustav’s landfall. While President Bush is in Texas monitoring the storm, the convention will be without a number of the delegates from the Gulf Coast region, who were offered flights back home on the GOP’s tab in advance of the Gustav’s landfall. Also missing the event will be Republican Governors Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Charlie Crist of Florida, Haley Barbour of Mississippi and Rick Perry of Texas. On Monday, the party will offer those watching at home information on how to help with relief efforts in the Gulf region.
The activities surrounding the day one theme, “Service,” appear to have been scrapped, but at press time it was unclear if the day two agenda, “Reform,” would be thrown out as well. Tuesday’s slate of speakers is scheduled to include a trio of Republican presidential aspirants who conceded defeat to McCain earlier this year: former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former U.S. Senator Fred Thompson and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, as well as a short-listed vice-presidential name, former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge.
Wednesday’s theme is “Prosperity,” and the speakers are slated to include vice-presidential nominee Palin, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney (another short-listed VP nominee), former eBay CEO and McCain national campaign co-chair Meg Whitman, RNC “Victory” Chairwoman and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, and McCain’s wife, Cindy. Convention organizers have not yet announced any alterations to their plans for Wednesday.
The final night’s theme is “Peace,” and it was expected to include a host of men who had been mentioned as possible VP candidates — Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, Crist and Kansas Senator Sam Brownback. McCain was also on tap to deliver his acceptance speech then, but the campaign has not yet decided if that address will happen as planned.
Before the storm hit, the 39th nominating convention for the GOP was to host 2,380 delegates and 2,227 alternates, though those numbers are likely to be impacted by a number of Gulf State delegates leaving the Twin Cities to deal with storm damage back home. McCain needs 1,191 pledged delegates to secure the nomination, and though there was some grumbling that delegates might balk if McCain picked Lieberman or Ridge as his running mate, the choice of the solidly conservative Palin appears to have appeased those dissenting voices.
Here are some other notes on the four-day event, all of which are subject to change/cancellation depending on Gustav’s impact:
» After ridiculing the Democratic National Convention for erecting a stage for Obama’s outdoor acceptance speech that it said was “God-like,” the RNC has promised that the dais at the Xcel Center in St. Paul will be lower to the ground and provide a more intimate field than Denver’s 80,000-plus-capacity Invesco Field.
» The first convention in the Twin Cities since 1892 was scheduled to bring 45,000 delegates, alternates, journalists and visitors to town. That’s not counting the thousands of protesters, some of whom will likely join Rage Against the Machine for a show September 3 at the Target Center in Minneapolis. More than 50,000 people are expected to march from the Minnesota Capitol to the Xcel Center on the first day in a protest urging the end of the Iraq war, and Rage guitarist Tom Morello will also be among the stars performing on Monday at St. Paul’s Harriett Island Park as part of union-sponsored Take Back Labor Day event. Already on Sunday, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported that nine protesters from Veterans for Peace were arrested after a rally of around 250 that started at the State Capitol and wound its way through downtown behind a flag-draped coffin. The nine were arrested after leaving the parade route and crawling under security tape near the Xcel Center.
» Opening on Labor Day, the RNC is the latest a major-party convention has ever taken place, in part due to the Olympics, which forced a delay of the Democratic convention as well. It will set up the first election in 80 years in which neither a sitting vice president nor president will be vying for the presidency. And with Bush canceling his planned Monday address, it will also mark the first time since 1968, when then President Lyndon Johnson did not speak in Chicago, that a sitting president has not given an address at his party’s convention.
» Republicans have vowed to make their convention one of the most technology-friendly ever, with a special zone set up for bloggers in the Xcel Center, an effort that will be all the more crucial for those writers keeping an eye on the news outside Xcel as they cover the re-worked schedule of events inside.
When the convention ends, McCain and Obama will engage in an intense 60-day sprint to the finish line on November 4, with three debates on the schedule, as well as a face-off between Palin and Democratic VP nominee Senator Joseph Biden. Depending on how he handles the aftermath of Gustav and how much of the RNC schedule is washed out because of the storm, McCain could also be facing the prospect of either no bounce in the polls due to scaled-down RNC, or a possible bigger bump if he is visible in hurricane relief efforts. Obama will likely attempt to show his presidential stripes in the storm’s aftermath as well.
Either way, the next two months promise to be a bare-knuckle fight between two men who have repeatedly vowed to rise above the typical Washington dirty tricks but have found themselves unable to break from the pack and must now conduct a battle in the potential shadow of a major disaster.
Don’t miss out on the action: MTV News and our Street Team ’08 will be on the ground at the Republican National Convention to sort through all the speeches, streamers and ceremony and find the information you need to choose our next president. Head to Choose or Lose for nonstop coverage of the 2008 presidential election.