As city workers hung American flags and added patriotic-elephant decorations along downtown streets Saturday, tens of thousands of Republicans from across the country began arriving here for the party’s national convention.
But the festive atmosphere was dampened by growing concern over Hurricane Gustav, which is bearing down on the Gulf Coast; the arrest of protesters who police say planned riots; and cancellations by several high-profile speakers, including California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
GOP officials wrestled Saturday with the possibility of delaying the convention, scheduled to run from Monday through Thursday, or scaling back its pomp and circumstance if Gustav is as devastating as is feared.
“We continue to closely monitor the movement of the storm and are considering necessary contingencies,” said Maria Cino, convention president.
Sen. John McCain, the presumptive GOP nominee, said Saturday that it might make sense to scale back the party’s moment in the spotlight.
“It just wouldn’t be appropriate to have a festive occasion while a near-tragedy or a terrible challenge is presented in the form of a natural disaster,” McCain told Fox News. “So we’re monitoring it from day to day and I’m saying a few prayers too.”
McCain’s campaign manager, Rick Davis, flew to Minnesota to meet with event organizers to discuss ways they might modify the convention in light of the hurricane.
The powerful storm is predicted to make landfall west of New Orleans as early as Monday, just days after the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. But National Weather Service officials cautioned that the hurricane’s path could shift and that it could strike anywhere from Texas to Florida in the next few days.
Apart from humanitarian concerns, the GOP’s image-makers are mindful of the public relations and political cost if the party appears to be partying in Minnesota while Americans are battling to survive a devastating hurricane.
The storm also might recall, for some, memories of the Bush administration’s slow and much-criticized response to Hurricane Katrina, which killed more than 1,800 people in the storm and subsequent floods and caused more than $81 billion in damage.
At least two Republican governors, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Rick Perry of Texas, said they were canceling their prime-time convention appearances because of Gustav.
Schwarzenegger bowed out to remain in California and deal with the state’s budget stalemate, according to an aide.
White House officials said that they were tracking the storm but that as of Saturday, President Bush still planned to speak at the convention Monday.
In the meantime, local authorities said they remained concerned about curtailing violent protests at the convention. On Friday night and Saturday morning, authorities raided a building in St. Paul and three homes in Minneapolis, seizing materials that could be used to barricade roads and disable buses, according to police officials.
The raids targeted the RNC Welcoming Committee, a self-described anarchist group, which Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher said in a statement was “intent on committing criminal acts before and during the Republican National Convention.”
At least four people were arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to commit a riot and other charges, and booked into Hennepin County Jail. Dozens were detained or questioned.
Bruce Nestor, president of the Minnesota chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, criticized the police action, saying officers also took boxes of pamphlets on free-speech laws in Minnesota and booklets on how to legally protest.
“It’s the same charge used against the Chicago Eight in 1968, and that was purely a politically motivated prosecution,” Nestor said, referring to the tumultuous Democratic National Convention that year. “This isn’t about protecting delegates. This is about a preemptive strike.”
Times staff writers Mark Z. Barabak in St. Paul, Bob Drogin in Washington, Pa., and Michael Rothfeld in Sacramento contributed to this report.