ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) –John McCain ordered changes in the Republican National Convention that was to be a four-day celebration of his presidential nomination Sunday, to “redirect our efforts” to reflect the seriousness of Hurricane Gustav as it churned toward the Gulf Coast. President Bush, Vice President Cheney and prominent GOP governors decided to skip the gathering altogether.
“I pledge that tomorrow night, and if necessary throughout our convention, we will act as Americans and not as Republicans because America needs us now,” McCain said.
McCain, his wife Cindy, and his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, toured the emergency management center in Mississippi, a state that could be hit hard by the approaching hurricane.
The Bush White House and Republicans in general are still shadowed by criticism of their handling of relief efforts after Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans and parts of the Mississippi Gulf Coast three years ago. Party leaders fear that televised scenes of celebrations and partying at the convention could subject them to similar criticism now.
“We must redirect our efforts from the really celebratory event of the nomination of the president and vice president of our party to acting as all Americans,” McCain told reporters.
Party leaders were considering shortening the big four-day event as Gustav approached the Gulf Coast with potentially deadly strength.
The McCain campaign was chartering a DC-9 jetliner from St. Paul for any delegates from the coastal region who wanted to return home.
The convention, a marquee event meant to send McCain into the fall campaign with a burst of energy and good feeling, already was becoming overwhelmed by alarming news of the hurricane just three years after deadly Katrina struck New Orleans.
GOP officials were tracking the path of the storm, trying to determine how to complete the official business of nominating McCain while also being sensitive to the thousands of people fleeing the Gulf Coast — more than 1,000 miles down the Mississippi from St. Paul.
Even as delegates streamed into the convention city, McCain and Palin got briefings from officials in Jackson. He was invited by Republican Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour.
President Bush said he would go to Texas on Monday to see emergency workers. He said he wouldn’t go to Louisiana right away because he didn’t want his presence to interfere with emergency operations. “I hope to be able to get to Louisiana as soon as conditions permit,” he told reporters after meeting with federal emergency officials in Washington.
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger backed out of his convention visit in an unrelated budget dispute with California legislators.
All three — Bush, Cheney and Schwarzenegger — had been scheduled to address the convention on Monday, its opening day.
Democrats turned their attention to the storm as well. Presidential nominee Barack Obama offered to tap his sprawling network of donors and volunteers to help any victims of Gustav.
“I think we can get tons of volunteers to travel down there if it becomes necessary,” Obama told reporters after attending St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Lima, Ohio. “I think we can activate an e-mail list of a couple of million people who want to give back,” he said.
He said donations could include cash, goods and individual labor.
Obama said he might visit storm-damaged areas once “things have settled down.”
Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor who is scheduled to be the convention’s keynote speaker, said Sunday, “We have to make sure the focus is on the South, on Gustav, make sure that all of the resources are there, and that anything that is done with regard to the convention doesn’t take anything away from that and is done in a serious way.”
He spoke on CBS’”Face the Nation.”
McCain said he had conferred by phone with Govs. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Bob Riley of Alabama and Charlie Crist of Florida. Crist wasn’t coming to St. Paul, even though he had been given a prominent speaking role, and the others weren’t coming either.
McCain went to Mississippi as convention officials, GOP Chairman Mike Duncan, and McCain Campaign Manager Rick Davis huddled to determine what to do about the convention. Republicans with knowledge of the deliberations said shortening their four-day national convention — and packing necessary work into a couple of days — was one option.
Several officials said various possibilities were being considered — including adding more public-service elements, and trimming back the pep-rally segments.
Canceling the convention altogether seemed highly unlikely, given that the party has to take formal steps to make sure McCain is nominated and can get on the ballot.
“We’re going to have a convention. We have to endorse a candidate. But it may be a different convention than what we thought of a couple days ago,” said Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman.
Mississippi Republican Chairman Brad White said most of his state’s 39 delegates were to arrive Sunday. About 10-15 delegates, mostly from Mississippi’s three southernmost counties, were staying home, he said.
He said he did not know of any delegates who planned to take the McCain campaign up on its offer of a chartered plane to fly home. “Keep in mind, those areas are under a mandatory evacuation, so right now they couldn’t go home anyway,” White said.
Democrats were paring back their activities in St. Paul.
Party spokesman Brad Woodhouse said the Democrats had canceled a “More of the Same” rally that had been slated for Monday. He said the tone of the Democratic rapid response effort would depend on the changes Republicans make in their convention program.
In other convention news, the Republican candidate’s wife, Cindy McCain, said her husband’s choice of Palin, a first-term Alaska governor little known outside her home state, was “a marvelous choice.”
“They’re a perfect match,” she told ABC’s “This Week” in a taped interview. Why? “Because she’s a reformer. And she thinks outside the box, the way my husband does,” Cindy McCain said. “You know, Washington is just a quagmire. It’s a mess right now. And both of them have been serious reformers.”
As to Palin’s lack of national security experience, Cindy McCain said, “Alaska is the closest part of our continent to Russia. So, it’s not as if she doesn’t understand what’s at stake here. It’s also about making decisions and be targeted in what she thinks. She has a great mind. And she has a very serious direction in where she goes.”
Also defending McCain’s running mate choice was Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, passed over by McCain for the No. 2 spot. He called Palin “a maverick with a record of reform.”