What if they held a convention and . . . ?

Times Staff Writer

As Sen. John McCain prepares to accept the Republican presidential nomination this week, his party’s four-day convention will be notable in part for who isn’t attending.

Compared with past GOP conventions, a surprising number of prominent lawmakers and candidates will stay away from the festivities Sept. 1 to 4 in St. Paul, Minn. -- chiefly citing tough reelection battles, previous commitments or other scheduling conflicts.

At least 10 incumbent senators, plus several Senate candidates, have sent their regrets. Only three incumbents in hotly contested races, including Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, will join the partygoers.


“It’s probably easier to say who is attending,” said Rebecca Fisher, spokeswoman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. But the list is “a moving target,” she added.

Republican officials have encouraged candidates to focus first on winning their own elections. But an aide to a Republican senator, who spoke on condition of anonymity, offered another reason for the no-shows.

“The party brand is in tatters,” said the aide. “The president is highly unpopular. There doesn’t seem to be much excitement around the candidate. And there’s a real fear of being tagged with the Republican label and being seen with George Bush.”

Some absences are due to overriding events in officials’ home states. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will bow out to stay in California and deal with a budget stalemate, and Govs. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Rick Perry of Texas said they would cancel their prime-time convention appearances because of the threat to the Gulf Coast from Hurricane Gustav.

(The White House said Saturday that President Bush was still planning to attend the convention but that contingency plans were being made in case of a Gulf Coast disaster.)

One incumbent Republican senator has no choice but to attend: Norm Coleman of Minnesota pushed to bring the GOP convention to his state and is scheduled to address the delegates.


But facing a stiff reelection battle, he now admits he’d rather be out campaigning.

“If the convention wasn’t in St. Paul, I wouldn’t be at the convention,” Coleman told Minnesota Public Radio.

Two of the GOP stay-aways probably will not be missed.

Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens is awaiting trial on seven federal charges stemming from a corruption scandal.

His staff says he won’t attend because he is too busy campaigning for his eighth term.

Stevens and McCain have clashed repeatedly over special congressional spending bills called earmarks, which McCain bitterly opposes. Whereas McCain boasts that he has never sought an earmark for his Arizona constituents, Stevens’ website showcases 125 recent requests for earmarks from Alaskan groups or communities.

Idaho Sen. Larry E. Craig also has reasons to avoid the Twin Cities. Craig pleaded guilty in August 2007 to a reduced misdemeanor charge arising from his arrest for allegedly soliciting sex from an undercover police officer in a restroom at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. His term is ending; he is not seeking reelection.

Other senators say they are simply too busy trying to save their jobs.

Pat Roberts of Kansas enjoys a double-digit lead over a Democratic challenger in a state that hasn’t elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1932.

But Roberts is “finishing his 105-county tour” of the state and doesn’t want to stop, said spokeswoman Molly Haase.

In New Hampshire, which McCain often calls his “second home” because of the time he has spent campaigning there, Sen. John E. Sununu is battling to hold on to his seat and will “continue his town-to-town, person-to-person campaign” this week, said spokeswoman Stefani Zimmerman.

Maine Sen. Susan Collins also will skip the St. Paul festivities to campaign at home, as will Oregon Sen. Gordon H. Smith, who is running for his third term.

Ditto for North Carolina Sen. Elizabeth Dole, who is locked in an unexpectedly tight reelection race.

However, her husband, Bob Dole, who ran three times for president and secured the GOP nomination in 1996, is expected to attend.

Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), who is retiring after two terms, plans to visit Europe this week rather than St. Paul. Hagel last week issued a statement of praise for Joe Biden, the Delaware senator who is now the Democratic nominee for vice president.

Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) also offered public support for Biden. He isn’t going to the GOP convention, according to his office.

Neither is Mike Johanns, a Republican running for Hagel’s seat. Johanns is “taking no vote for granted” and will be knocking on doors in Nebraska, said spokeswoman Sarah Pompei.

Similarly, retiring Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.) and the Republican who is campaigning to succeed him, Bob Schaffer, are both skipping the convention.

Schaffer plans to stay home to attend to his wife, Maureen, who is undergoing surgery, an aide said.

McCain didn’t help Schaffer, or his presidential election chances in Colorado, by indicating this month that he supports renegotiating a 1922 Colorado River compact to allocate more water to his home state of Arizona, as well as Nevada and California.

“Over my cold dead political carcass,” Schaffer told reporters.

The issue is politically explosive in the region.

Later, in a letter to Allard, McCain said his own remarks “may have been mistakenly misconstrued” and he did not advocate changing the compact.


Times staff writers Vimal Patel and Cynthia Dizikes in Washington contributed to this report.