ST. PAUL—It was supposed to be George W. Bush's last hurrah at a Republican National Convention, but it's turned into a delicate moment of damage control.
White House officials said Sunday that Bush won't speak Monday night at the convention—his last as president—-as planned. Vice President Dick Cheney won't attend either. Instead, Bush is likely to address the delegates by video as he focuses his attention on preparing for the potentially devastating arrival of Hurricane Gustav along the Gulf Coast.
Many convention delegates and Republican strategists who are converging on the convention city are relieved that Bush won't be coming. They acknowledge privately that the unpopular president is a drag on the party and its candidates, and many have always preferred that he stay away from St. Paul and keep his distance from the GOP presidential ticket.
No one is minimizing the real-life consequences of the storm and what harm it might do to people in its path. But from a purely political viewpoint, the hurricane poses an enormous challenge to the convention planners and to GOP presidential candidate John McCain.
McCain had hoped for a triumphant week to mark the start of his general election campaign with newly announced vice presidential running mate Sarah Palin, the governor of Alaska. Now, Gustav serves as a reminder of the Bush administration's weak response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The Republicans want to make sure that they aren't seen celebrating while their fellow citizens suffer along the Gulf Coast. Convention planners are considering shortening the convention or perhaps making it into a gigantic fund-raiser for disaster relief. As of Sunday evening official business would still take place, meaning McCain would still be nominated and the platform accepted, but all speeches on Monday were cancelled. The planners will re-evaluate day by day based on Hurricane Gustav.
"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 Sunday. "So we're monitoring it from day to day, and I'm saying a few prayers, too."
For Bush, the hurricane raises many bad memories from Katrina—considered one of the biggest setbacks of his presidency. This time, the president and his aides are being careful to monitor Hurricane Gustav very closely—and to make sure Americans know they are coordinating the federal, state, and local response much better than they did in 2005.
Senior federal officials have been sent into the hurricane zone, and Bush has already preemptively declared states of emergency in Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi, and Alabama.
Bush also is scheduled to talk with emergency workers in Texas Monday in an early visit to a disaster-relief center—something he didn't do in the early part of the Katrina debacle.