ST. PAUL, Minnesota — As the Republican National Convention opened on Monday, party members were prepared for the possibility that news events would overshadow the first session of their four-day gathering. But it wasn't Hurricane Gustav — which caused organizers to scale back the first day's speeches severely — that dominated chatter, but rather the news that the 17-year-old daughter of vice-presidential nominee Alaska Governor Sarah Palin is five months pregnant.
(With the damage from Gustav less severe than expected, organizers announced early Tuesday morning (September 2) that they would resume the normal schedule for the convention, including a rescheduled prime-time address from President Bush.)
While delegates gathered inside the Xcel Energy Center on Monday to begin the business of nominating their presumptive candidate, John McCain, and commiserate about the day's news from the Gulf and elsewhere, 10,000 anti-war protesters snaked their way from the state capitol building to the edge of the perimeter surrounding the sports arena and back again, in what was a mostly peaceful march, interrupted by random acts of vandalism by a group of masked anarchists. According to the local media reports, the violence resulted in 283 arrests, with 129 for felony charges.
As delegates began streaming into the Xcel Center around noon, a group of between 50 and 100 anarchists, most with their faces covered and wearing all black, swarmed back and forth on a main boulevard, unable to decide which direction to head as ominous phalanxes of riot-gear-swathed police faced off with them at every turn. Once they chose to head away from the main anti-war protest, some of the anarchists grabbed a Dumpster, tossing garbage onto the street and at passing cars. They marched through the downtown area, smashing police-cruiser windows and upending mailboxes, newspaper stands and traffic signs, sometimes arguing among themselves whether vandalism was the right thing to do. They would later sprinkle nails in the street and pelt delegate buses with urine bombs as the various pods of anarchists spread out in their attempt to interrupt the business of the convention.
At one point, a group rushed a barricade, and police fired pepper balls and tear gas at them from close range, knocking a few protesters to their knees. Later, when a group of more than 100 protesters locked arms to block a delegate bus, police launched tear gas, concussion grenades and smoke bombs.
Inside the Xcel Center, delegates attempted to focus on the business of the day in order to get the convention opened and on track to nominate their candidate. While most of the day's speeches — including addresses from President Bush and Vice President Cheney, as well as California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger — postponed or canceled, first lady Laura Bush received a raucous standing ovation that lasted more than a minute.
"Our first priority for today and in the coming days is to ensure the safety and well-being of those living in the Gulf Coast region," she said. "And to all of those living in the Gulf states, please know that our thoughts and prayers are with you. The effect of Hurricane Gustav is just now being measured. 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."
TV screens around the arena encouraged attendees to text $5 donations to the American Red Cross to help victims of Gustav.
Cindy McCain also implored attendees to put aside partisan differences and focus on helping their fellow citizens. "I would ask that each one of us commit to join together to aid those in need as quickly as possible," she said. "As John has been saying for the last several days, this is a time when we take off our Republican hats and put on our American hats."
But even more than the surprise appearances by the first lady and prospective first lady, the story that seemed to be on most minds and lips was that of 17-year-old Bristol Palin. The teen plans on keeping her baby with an unidentified boyfriend, whom she intends to wed, Governor Palin's camp said on Monday. According to the Washington Post, pro-life conservatives and religious leaders cheered the younger Palin's choice to keep the child and her parents' support of their daughter's decision.
McCain's rival, Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama, made it clear to reporters that he still stands by his earlier statement that candidates' children should be off-limits in the campaign and sternly warned that he would fire anyone in his campaign for violating that pledge.
The comparatively unknown Palin's ascension to the number-two slot on the GOP ticket has set off a frenzy of reporting to dig up more about the governor's past and, according to the Post, the McCain campaign has flown in a team of lawyers and other campaign aides to Alaska to deal with any potential snags.
The day also featured a well-attended concert across the river from the convention, on St Paul's Harriet Island, organized by the Service Employees International Union under the Take Back Labor Day Festival banner. The show featured sets from singer/songwriter Steve Earle and Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello, as well as Billy Bragg, Mos Def, headliners the Pharcyde and hometown rap heroes Atmosphere. More than 10,000 people showed up for the concert, which was meant to highlight the need for affordable universal health care.
It will be back to business as usual on Tuesday at the convention, after Gustav hit the Gulf Coast on Monday with hurricane-strength winds but apparently without the devastating impact of 2005's Katrina. After having his address canceled on Monday, President Bush will appear via satellite on Tuesday night in prime time (9:30 p.m. ET), to be followed by one-time presidential hopeful and former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson, and former Democrat turned McCain advisor Senator Joseph Lieberman. After losing an entire day of messaging, the theme of Tuesday has shifted to "Who Is John McCain?" from the original theme, "Reform," according to CNN.
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