MINNESOTA, September 1 – White House hopeful John McCain shelved most of Monday’s first day of the Republican convention and vowed to put politics on hold as Hurricane Gustav roared towards ill-fated New Orleans.,
Stalked by ominous memories of the Hurricane Katrina tragedy three years ago, party leaders scurried to change their plans, sensitive to how a full-bore political bonanza would look while a killer storm battered the Gulf Coast.
"I hope and pray we will be able to resume some of our normal operations as quickly as possible," McCain told reporters via a video link from St. Louis, after returning from a tour of relief preparations in Mississippi.
"We’re going to suspend most of our activities tomorrow, except for those absolutely necessary," said McCain, who is facing the prospect that his best chance to sell his case to voters will be severely curtailed by the storm.
"I hope and pray we will be able to resume some of our normal operations as quickly as possible, but some of that is frankly in the hands of God."
The Arizona senator said convention delegates needed to "take off our Republican hats and put on our American hats, and we say America, we’re with you."
Hurricane Gustav’s approach has revived painful memories for Republicans of Katrina which drowned large sections of New Orleans in 2005 and killed 1,800 people in the region.
President George W. Bush took the lion’s share of the blame for the botched recovery effort after Katrina, which saw poverty-stricken people abandoned in the city, and the Republican brand has still to recover.
Though he vowed to disdain politics, McCain was treading a fine line in trying to showcase leadership skills while guarding against accusations he was exploiting the storm.
His shock vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin also weighed in on the situation as the pair campaigned in Missouri.
"Moments like this pull our political debate back to fundamentals," Palin said.
"This serves as a reminder that there are consequences when government fails to make very good on its most basic obligations."
McCain’s campaign manager Rick Davis said the convention would open for just over two hours on Monday, solely to go through procedures necessary under law to begin the process of nominating a president and vice president.
"We will refrain from any political rhetoric which would be traditional in an opening session," Davis said.
"Right now we have a horrible storm bearing down on the Gulf, people should be more concerned about that than a political campaign and that is the way we are going to let the chips fall."
Democratic nominee Barack Obama meanwhile said he would open up his vast donor list to channel money or volunteers to help the recovery efforts, in response to Gustav, which is set to hit the Louisiana coast on Monday.
"We can activate an email list of a couple million people who want to give back," Obama told reporters after attending church in Lima, Ohio.
"I think we can get tons of volunteers to travel down there if it becomes necessary."
Bush said earlier Sunday he would skip his planned convention speech on Monday, and instead monitor the storm and evacuation efforts in Texas.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Vice President Dick Cheney also scrapped his planned speech on Monday night.
McCain earlier defended his choice of first-term Alaska governor Palin as his vice presidential pick, as Democrats warned she was woefully short of experience.
McCain described Palin as a "soul mate" and a reformer with the "right judgment."
"She’s been a commander in chief of the Alaska national guard," said McCain, adding that Palin’s son, who is in the US Army, is shortly to be deployed to Iraq.
Democrats and some political commentators have savaged McCain’s pick of Palin, 44, a mother of five, over her lack of expertise in foreign affairs, saying she is too inexperienced to be a "heartbeat" away from the presidency.
Democrat John Kerry said on ABC that the selection proved McCain was "erratic."
"John McCain’s judgment is once again put at issue, because he’s chosen somebody who clearly doesn’t meet the national security threshold, who is not ready to be president tomorrow."