ST. PAUL, Minnesota (Reuters) - Republicans open their convention on Monday to nominate presidential candidate John McCain with no pomp and little politics, shelving the usual celebration out of deference to the approaching threat of Hurricane Gustav.
Fearing televised images of Republican festivities would be inappropriate as a killer storm slammed the Gulf Coast, McCain and his party will hold a curtailed business-only session for about two hours on the convention’s opening day.
McCain visited a hurricane command center on Sunday. He does not want to risk comparisons to President George W. Bush, who was seen as out of touch and was heavily criticized for his failure to respond promptly to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina three years ago.
“I have every expectation that we will not see the mistakes of Katrina repeated,” McCain said by satellite from St. Louis on Sunday after being briefed on storm preparations in the region.
“There were lots of mistakes and they were on every level,” first lady Laura Bush told CBS’ “The Early Show” when asked if she was surprised McCain had criticized the president over Katrina. “We certainly learned from those.”
The four-day Republican convention will nominate McCain and his vice presidential running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, to face Democratic rival Barack Obama and his No. 2, Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, in the November 4 presidential election.
The convention opens four days after Obama concluded the Democratic convention with an acceptance speech before 75,000 flag-waving supporters in Denver’s open-air football stadium.
Republican officials would not predict when or even if the remainder of the convention would proceed, and McCain told NBC News he might deliver his acceptance speech on Thursday via satellite from the Gulf Coast.
Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney had canceled their appearances at the convention even before the schedule was reduced. The White House said Bush might address the convention later in the week.
Monday’s schedule will include the formal opening of the convention and official business that must be conducted according to party rules, said Rick Davis, McCain’s campaign manager.
The convention program also will include some time devoted to making delegates and viewers aware of what they can do to assist relief efforts, Davis said.
McCain’s campaign chartered an airplane to ferry delegates from Gulf Coast states back home to prepare for the storm.
Both camps struggled with the political implications of the storm, trying to appear responsive without appearing to be political opportunists. Most polls show Obama and McCain in a close race. A CNN/Opinion Research Corp poll released on Sunday night showed Obama leading McCain by 49 percent to 48 percent, a statistical dead heat after last week’s Democratic convention and McCain’s surprise selection of Palin.
The party meetings are a prime opportunity for candidates to make their cases for election to a general public that is just beginning to tune in, and the loss of one or more days could be a blow to McCain.
But Monday is Labor Day in the United States, a national holiday that would make for a smaller television audience for the Republican convention as many Americans will be away from their televisions and celebrating with family and friends.
Some Republicans hoped McCain could benefit by demonstrating a strong and compassionate response to the Gustav. The cancellations by Bush and Cheney, who are unpopular with the public although not with the Republican Party base, also could benefit McCain.
“We don’t have the luxury of trying to evaluate the politics of this situation,” Davis told reporters.
Obama said he would not visit the storm site at this time to avoid placing a strain on emergency service providers in the region. But he promised to help supporters on his 2 million strong e-mail list become involved in aid efforts in the region.
Editing by Patricia Zengerle