Gustav Gives a Republican Convention Without the Glitz

At least on day one, the convention will just be a pro forma exercise.

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ST. PAUL—Hurricane Gustav has given us something new in national convention history: a convention that, at least on day one, will be just a pro forma exercise. That was explained in a 3 p.m. press conference Sunday at a small auditorium at the Rivercentre, next door to the Xcel Center arena where the convention will be held. (By the way, the hall feels a lot larger than the Pepsi Center in Denver. Republicans have many fewer delegates than Democrats, and at this convention they'll all be seated on the floor rather than in seats rising from the floor. Curiously, the Arizona and Alaska delegations are not front row center.) John McCain spoke on videoconference and said there should be no political rhetoric while this natural disaster was occurring. Republican National Committee Chairman Mike Duncan explained that the convention must formally convene for legal reasons: otherwise the Republican National Committee would go out of existence and states would list no Republican candidates for president or vice president. Then McCain campaign manager Rick Davis explained what will happen Monday. The convention will convene at 3 p.m. and go through the motions that it must legally go through pursuant to the Call to the Convention. The presiding officer will note the presence of a quorum (a majority of the delegates). The reports of the credentials, rules, and platform committees will be received and, I am sure, promptly approved (as they were at the Democratic convention). No political speeches will be given.

Jeff Greenfield of CBS News asked Davis at the press conference and then when we were walking down the hallway afterwards asked top adviser Charlie Black whether any thought had been given to contacting the Obama campaign to cooperate with them over the next few days. Davis and Black basically said it hadn't crossed anyone's mind.

I ran into Black before the press conference and asked him if Sarah Palin had been under consideration for vice president all the way through the process. He assured me she had, and expressed amusement that most press accounts ignored her. "You can keep a secret if you don't tell anybody," he said. He said he hadn't told his wife, who was mad at him for that but was delighted by the Palin pick.

What happens next depends on what happens on the Gulf Coast. From the TV footage I caught, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal seems to be doing a masterful job of preparation—a big, big contrast from his predecessor Kathleen Blanco three years ago.

What does this mean politically (if one can speculate on that)? Well, it means that the convention will not hear from George W. Bush or Dick Cheney. Other scheduled Monday night speakers—Arnold Schwarzenegger and Laura Bush—could conceivably speak on a later night. If Gustav turns out to be as devastating as Katrina, conceivably there could be no convention speeches at all. If not, we may see a one- or two-night TV show, leaving the focus more exclusively on John McCain and Sarah Palin. That would be a contrast with the Democratic National Convention, much of whose prime time was (necessarily) devoted to leaders of the past—Bill and Hillary Clinton, Edward Kennedy.

The tracking polls released Sunday showed Barack Obama's lead decreasing slightly: he's ahead 48 percent to 42 percent in Gallup and 49 percent to 46 percent in Rasmussen. That suggests a small bounce, but you can argue about the proper starting points and endpoints for any bounce. After all, almost all respondents interviewed Thursday night had not seen the Obama speech (interviews typically aren't conducted after 9 p.m.) and all respondents interviewed Friday night had a chance to digest both the Obama speech and the selection of Palin. In Gallup, Obama seemed to have his best night Thursday, with no improvement Friday. The same pattern is apparent in Rasmussen's numbers (Rasmussen dates his polls from the day the numbers are released, not the last interviewing date). This suggests that any positive effect of the Obama speech was at least a little offset by the Palin pick.

The conventional wisdom in St. Paul was that the sight of another hurricane hitting New Orleans and the curtailment of the Republican proceedings would hurt the Republicans. This could turn out to be right. However, it's also possible that Republicans have caught some luck. Palin's selection was made well before the hurricane dominated the news (20 years ago Dan Quayle was named on the Tuesday of convention week). The cancellation of the Bush and Cheney speeches may undercut a bit the Democrats' arguments that John McCain is the same as George W. Bush. The two most prominent figures this week, aside from McCain, could turn out to be Sarah Palin and Bobby Jindal—a new generation of conservative Republicans, both almost totally unknown to the national public as the Democrats cheered Barack Obama in Invesco Field. There is speculation that John McCain might deliver his acceptance speech via video, from another location—as if this would be a great break from precedent. But it's not. In 1944 Franklin Roosevelt delivered his acceptance speech, via radio, from San Diego, where he was on a military inspection tour. And contrary to the suggestion of one of the questions at the press conference, nominees don't have to appear at the convention at all. For many years the fiction was indulged that the candidates did not seek the nomination, and the parties to this day appoint committees to go and inform the nominee of his selection. The first Democratic nominee to appear before the convention was Franklin Roosevelt in 1932; the first Republican was Thomas Dewey in 1944.

A few random notes follow.

A regular E-mail correspondent asked me what I knew about Sarah Palin's judicial appointments. Here's a start on an answer.

My Creator Syndicate column deadline required me to hand in copy before Thursday night. It covers a topic that has been swept aside for the moment by Barack Obama's speech, John McCain's rollout of Sarah Palin, and Hurricane Gustav. But I think it may zip back into relevance as the campaign goes on.

Bill Stuntz, evangelical Christian and Harvard law professor, has interesting thoughts on experience.

At the Xcel Center I had a chance to talk with John Sinovic and Tim Schoeffler of the Log Cabin Republicans. They say they have been made welcomed by the Republican National Committee and the McCain campaign. Sinovic noted that McCain's positions on gay issues were not different from John Kerry's in 2004 and that "he absolutely listens." He said he likes Palin and said she has never used gay issues as wedge issues.