GOP convention turns to appeal for hurricane aid

September 1, 2008 12:01:27 PM PDT
Republicans hurried to turn the opening day of their national convention into a fundraising drive for hurricane victims Monday, with presidential candidate John McCain's wife and first lady Laura Bush appealing for Gulf Coast help. McCain visited a disaster relief center in Ohio. Convention talk also focused on an announcement that the 17-year-old, unmarried daughter of McCain's running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, was pregnant - a disclosure the campaign said was aimed at rebutting Internet rumors that Palin's son, born last April, was actually her daughter's.

Party officials in St. Paul kept a watchful eye on still-dangerous Hurricane Gustav Monday to decide next steps for their shortened convention. They said they still expected McCain to address the convention at Thursday night's finale.

McCain's wife, Cindy, and Mrs. Bush were to address the abbreviated convention session on relief efforts.

Mrs. Bush told Texas delegates they would talk about "what people around the country, as well as the people here - the delegates here - can do to help specific states."

The Republican National Committee modified its Web site to show an opening banner that states: "Hurricane Gustav: How You Can Help."

President Bush, whose administration was widely accused of a botched handling of the Katrina disaster three years ago, traveled to Texas rather than to St. Paul, where he had been scheduled to speak on the opening night of the Republican National Convention.

Bush planned visits to Austin and San Antonio to visit staging grounds for hurricane response efforts. There was no word on whether he would address the convention at some point by satellite.

Democrats also swung their attention to the hurricane.

Presidential nominee Barack Obama urged hundreds of thousands of supporters to donate to the Red Cross to help victims of Gustav. In a mass e-mailing, he urged supporters to "please give whatever you can afford, even $10, to make sure the American Red Cross has the resources to help those in the path of this storm."

He scaled back a Labor Day speech to unions in Detroit to keep attention on the Gulf Coast. After stops in Michigan and Wisconsin, he was returning to his Chicago headquarters to monitor the storm's progress and decide his schedule for the rest of the week.

Obama has said he may visit storm-damaged areas once things have "settled down."

Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Biden canceled plans to march in a Labor Day parade in Pittsburgh to monitor storm developments. "Our focus right now should be on what's happening in the Gulf," he said.

The Republican convention remained in limbo on its first day. At McCain's behest, party leaders called off the usual festivities and planned only a truncated meeting in the afternoon.

Gustav, weakened somewhat to a Category 2 storm with 110 mph winds, came ashore in the heart of Louisiana's fishing and oil industry about 70 miles southwest of New Orleans on Monday, delivering only a glancing blow to New Orleans.

In Waterville, Ohio, McCain visited a disaster relief center, and helped pack cleaning supplies and other items into plastic buckets that will be sent to the Gulf Coast area.

Linda Green, who runs the center, thanked McCain for directing Republicans to avoid "hoopla" at the convention and respecting the needs of storm victims instead.

"Each one should use whatever gift he or she has received to serve others faithfully administering God's grace in its various forms," the Arizona senator said, reading from Green's business card.

McCain, who visited Mississippi on Sunday, said that while there is now better coordination among federal, state and local authorities, there are still problems.

"There's still, I think, not as much communications equipment as we want. There's still not enough search-and-rescue capabilities, although they're trying to fix that. It's not perfect, but I think that it's dramatically different than it was in response to Katrina," McCain said in an interview broadcast on NBC's "Today" show. The interview was taped on Sunday.

Cindy McCain and Palin arrived in the convention city Sunday night.

A statement on the pregnancy of the vice presidential candidate's daughter was released by the campaign on Monday. It said that Bristol Palin will keep her baby and marry the child's father. The baby is due in late December.

"Our beautiful daughter Bristol came to us with news that as parents we knew would make her grow up faster than we had ever planned. We're proud of Bristol's decision to have her baby and even prouder to become grandparents," Sarah and Todd Palin said in the brief statement.

Obama condemned campaign rumors involving the children of candidates. Speaking Monday to reporters in Michigan, he said, "I think people's families are off limits, and people's children are especially off limits."

Obama adamantly any suggestion that his campaign helped spread the rumors.

"I am offended by that statement," he said. "Our people were not involved in any way in this, and they will not be. And if I ever thought that there was somebody in my campaign that was involved in something like that, they'd be fired."

Concerned about negative images of partying delegates while Gulf Coast residents suffer, the Republican National Committee and the McCain campaign were trying to police activities on the convention sidelines.

That included a warning to Louisiana delegates against traditional alcohol-laced "hurricane parties" - following reports of a late-night celebration on Sunday ahead of the storm's landfall on Monday.

The GOP also is overseeing an effort by the American Red Cross and the Minneapolis-based Target department store chain to assemble comfort packs for Gulf Coast residents.

GOP Chairman Robert "Mike" Duncan said certain legal requirements had to be met despite the decision to truncate the convention in order to legally place McCain's and Palin's names in nomination.

One piece of business slated for Monday was of special interest to delegations from Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina: a rule to cement their leadoff status for the 2012 campaign. It declares that no state can hold its primary or caucus before the first Tuesday in March, except for Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

They, in turn, cannot hold their votes before the first Tuesday in February, a stark contrast to this year, when Iowa held its caucuses on Jan. 3, and New Hampshire and South Carolina held their primaries on Jan. 8 and Jan. 19, respectively.

About 2,000 protesters waving peace sign flags rallied at the state Capitol on Monday before an anti-war march to the convention site. Hundreds of police wearing bulletproof vests and carrying billy clubs stood by.