ST. PAUL, Minn. — First lady Laura Bush and Sen. John McCain’s wife jointly addressed delegates to the Republican National Convention on Monday, but their message was directed to Gulf Coast states hit by Hurricane Gustav: Now is the time to aid the victims, not wallow in partisanship.
Standing in for the president, who was overseeing hurricane relief efforts from Texas, Bush acknowledged that the first family had been “planning to come to this convention to have a good time.” But the news from Louisiana and Mississippi “changed our attention, and our first priority now is to protect the safety of those living in the Gulf Coast region.”
Cindy McCain, wife of the man whom the delegates will nominate for president this week, joined the first lady briefly on the podium, declaring: “This is a time when we take off our Republican hats and put on our American hats.”
McCain directed viewers to a Web site, causegreater.com, where they could make donations.
Republicans drastically scaled back the opening day of the convention, turning the day’s events into an appeal to raise money for victims of the hurricane.
The convention was less than 15 minutes old when Robert “Mike” Duncan, chairman of the Republican National Committee, asked delegates to take out their cell phones and text a five- digit code that would make a donation to the Red Cross to help victims of Gustav, which made landfall Monday in Louisiana.
While the abbreviated roster of speakers called for John McCain’s election in November, the main message of the day was, as Bush put it, that “first, we’re all Americans and that our shared American ideals will always transcend political parties and partisanship.”
Outside the Xcel center, anti-war protesters marched toward the convention, some of them smashing windows, puncturing tires and throwing bottles along the way. Police used pepper spray on the demonstrators and made at least 13 arrests.
Palin family dominates convention coverage
The main piece of business was the adoption of the party platform, which is at odds with McCain on abortion rights.
The nonbinding document calls for an outright ban on abortion. It does not include exceptions allowing abortion in cases of rape, incest or where a woman’s life would be in danger, exceptions that McCain favors.
But across the convention site, talk focused on the 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 youngest son, who was born in April, was actually her daughter’s.
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In a statement Monday, the campaign said Palin’s daughter Bristol was due to have a child in December. It said she would keep her baby and marry the child's father.
“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.
McCain’s Democratic opponent, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, took note of speculation that rumors about the child were being fueled by liberal Internet activists and said, “I think people’s families are off-limits, and people’s children are especially off-limits.”
“Our people were not involved in any way,” Obama told reporters in Monroe, Mich., noting that his mother gave birth to him when she was just 18. “And if I thought anyone in my campagin was involved in something like that, they’d be fired.”
Convention to be shortened, refocused
Top Republican officials, meanwhile, were also keeping a watchful eye on Hurricane Gustav to decide the next steps for their shortened convention. They said they still expected McCain to address the convention at Thursday night’s finale.
President Bush, whose administration was widely accused of botching 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.
In Waterville, Ohio, McCain visited a disaster relief center and helped pack cleaning supplies and other items into plastic buckets that would 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,” McCain said, reading from Green’s business card.
“And as the hurricane strikes Louisiana as we speak, all Americans, I know, will be motivated by those words of serving others and using whatever gifts we have to help our fellow Americans,” McCain told reporters.
In an interview taped Sunday and broadcast Monday on NBC’s TODAY, McCain said he saw signs that the government’s response to Gustav was better than it was to Katrina three years ago.
“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,” he said. “It’s not perfect, but I think that it’s dramatically different than it was in response to Katrina.”
More campaign changes
Obama also changed his plans in light of Gustav, planning to return home to Chicago on Monday night to monitor the hurricane and rearrange his schedule for the rest oif the week, aides told NBC News.
Obama has said he may visit storm-damaged areas once things have “settled down.” In the meantime, he sent a mass e-mailing urging hundreds of thousands of supporters to donate to the Red Cross to help victims of Gustav.
“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,” the message said.
The Democratic vice presidential nominee, Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, 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.
Changing the focus
Some events did go on, however, in St. Paul, where Palin and Cindy McCain and Palin arrived Sunday night.
Duncan said Sunday that certain legal requirements had to be met despite the decision to truncate the convention in order to legally place McCain and Palin’s names in nomination.Interactive convention party map
But mainly, party officials were trying to steer convention efforts toward raising funds for relief efforts.
Concerned about negative images of partying delegates while Gulf Coast residents suffered, 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 Sunday ahead of the storm’s landfall.
Alex Johnson of msnbc.com; Matt Berger, Savannah Guthrie, Mike Memoli, Andrea Mitchell, Domenico Montanaro, Mark Murray and Mike Taibbi of NBC News; NBC affiliate KARE of Minneapolis; and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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