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GOP retools plans in St. Paul

Times Staff Writers

Republicans scrambled Sunday to reshape their national convention to a more austere and less political event as Hurricane Gustav upended their plans to showcase John McCain and his new running mate, and to take apart Barack Obama in a nationally televised extravaganza.

After the Democratic nominee’s acceptance speech in Denver broke television records, McCain had hoped his own party’s four-day gathering in St. Paul would draw attention to his agenda. He had sought to distance himself from the unpopular Republican president, buttress his image as a reform-minded maverick and connect with economically stressed Americans.

The cancellation of President Bush’s scheduled appearance today helped the Arizona senator on the first count. (The Bush administration’s handling of Hurricane Katrina three years ago badly damaged the Republican Party.)

But Gustav threatened to capsize the rest of McCain’s plans -- along with months of careful political strategizing -- by turning attention away from the convention to the Gulf Coast’s imperiled residents.

Convention planners shifted the tone and focus of the week from Republican revelry and attacks on Democrats to a more uplifting, nonpartisan message.

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Parties were abruptly canceled Sunday or turned into fundraisers for hurricane relief. Speeches were scrapped or rewritten, and today’s opening program was shrunk to a bare minimum. Even McCain’s scheduled arrival Wednesday was in doubt.

On Sunday, McCain said it was necessary to “take off our Republican hats and put on our American hats.”

Aides to McCain said there were no plans whatsoever to speak of Obama from the convention stage, save for a mild contrast in McCain’s Thursday night acceptance speech, though that could change along with circumstances outside the hall.

“Each day, we’re going to make a call as we go based on the conditions on the ground,” said Charles Black, a senior advisor to McCain.

Four years ago, the Democrats’ nominee, Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry, adopted the same speak-no-ill strategy at his party’s national convention, much to his subsequent regret. By contrast, one speaker after another took turns last week blasting McCain at the Democrats’ gathering, and Obama closed out the event with a sharp attack on his Republican opponent in a speech seen by more than 38 million Americans.

This week presented McCain his chance to respond, and possibly his last chance to speak unfiltered to a large number of voters between now and Nov. 4. However, the broadcast networks announced Sunday that they were diverting their star anchors to cover the hurricane and would scale back their already limited convention coverage.

But there was a potential upside to nature’s unprecedented intervention: an opportunity for McCain to press the GOP convention’s theme of “Country First,” in both word and deed. McCain took the first steps in that direction Sunday, flying with his new running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, to Jackson, Miss., for a briefing on the storm. His campaign also chartered a DC-9 to fly delegates from Mississippi and Louisiana to Jackson.

In remarks beamed to reporters at a news conference in St. Paul, McCain said all of today’s convention activities would be suspended, save those required by party rules. “It’s time to open our hearts, our efforts, our wallets, our concern, our care for those American citizens who are now under the shadow and the probability of a natural disaster,” McCain said.

Speaking to reporters afterward, campaign manager Rick Davis said it was an open question whether McCain would show up at all in Minnesota. “If conditions allow, we’d love to have him here,” though the campaign was sensitive to anything “inappropriate” or insensitive to victims of the hurricane, Davis said.

McCain planned to arrive in the Twin Cities on Wednesday, the day he is set to be formally installed atop the GOP ticket, and is due to wrap up the convention Thursday with his acceptance speech. Alaska Gov. Palin was scheduled to give a prime-time address Wednesday night, but those plans were also up in the air.

Many delegates said they accepted the need to scramble convention plans and cut back on the festivities. “It’s hard to have a smile on your face if people are suffering,” said Don J. Leonard, chairman of the Republican Party in Tioga County, N.Y. “It certainly casts a very somber note.”

But not everyone was pleased with the notion of a no-fun convention. “Sure it’s disappointing,” said Phillip H. Prange, a delegate from Madison, Wis. “I called my 92-year-old great aunt, and she said that in London in World War II they were being bombed by the Nazis, but the parties went on anyway.”

McCain advisors had hoped this week would offer a chance to recast the nominee-to-be and wrestle away the change mantle from Obama. With a lineup of moderate speakers -- including independent Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, former New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and former EBay Chief Executive Meg Whitman -- McCain strategists hoped to appeal to independents and conservative Democrats who could be crucial in a handful of battleground states.

The week of speeches and biographical films was also intended to style McCain as the true candidate of reform, who bucked his party on issues such as ethics, campaign finance, climate change and government spending. The selection of Palin, who has clashed with her party’s establishment in Alaska, was intended to help shore up that image.

The emphasis on McCain as an outsider was also viewed as a subtle way to distance him from Bush without antagonizing presidential loyalists.

“John McCain has a clear, robust and durable brand, and the Republican Party needs rebranding,” said Mark McKinnon, a media strategist who worked for Bush and sometimes advises McCain. “It’s independence. It’s principle. It’s courage. But it’s also about evolving the party -- talking about issues that Republicans have been reluctant to talk about, like the environment.”

Even before Hurricane Gustav, McCain faced the prospect of being overshadowed at the convention by his bolt-from-the-blue running mate, who will receive her first significant dose of national exposure.

Republicans were clearly divided between social conservatives exuberant about Palin’s selection and others befuddled by the choice, given her age -- 44, or three years younger than Obama -- and relative lack of political experience.

“There’s a general kind of amazement,” said Dick Dresner, a GOP consultant who said many Republicans were waiting to see whether Palin proved an asset or undercut one of the McCain’s chief arguments against Obama -- the notion that he was unprepared to step into the White House.

But given the odd turn of events, many Republicans were at a loss to say what, if anything, the impact would be of this week’s nonpolitical political gathering.

Said House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, who will wield the gavel at formal sessions: “It’s kind of hard to talk about the message of the convention or the message of the fall campaign, given what we’re dealing with.”

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maeve.reston@latimes.com

mark.barabak@latimes.com

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Times staff writers P.J. Huffstutter, Doyle McManus, Dan Morain and James Rainey contributed to this report.--

Convention coverage

Bush cancels: He’ll focus on Gustav. Not everyone will miss him. Page A14

McCain’s makeover: In choosing Palin, he revives a reformer role. Page A9

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On latimes.com

Top of the Ticket

Times reporters are blogging daily from St. Paul, Minn., in Top of the Ticket. Follow the news as it happens, and see photos and video from inside and around the convention at latimes.com/ticket.


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