GOP Convention Turns to Plea for Hurricane Aid

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Republicans scrambled to turn the first day of their national convention into a fundraising drive for hurricane victims, with presidential candidate John McCain's wife and first lady Laura Bush appealing for Gulf Coast help. McCain visited a disaster relief center in Ohio.

Party officials in St. Paul kept a watchful eye on still-dangerous Hurricane Gustav Monday to decide next steps for their shortened convention. They said they still expected McCain to address the convention at Thursday night's finale.

McCain's wife, Cindy, and Mrs. Bush would make remarks "directed toward the storm and where to send donations," said Doug McCain, one of the presidential candidate's sons.

President Bush, whose administration was widely accused of a botched handling of 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.

The convention remained in limbo on its first day. At McCain's behest, party leaders called off the usual festivities and planned only a truncated meeting in the afternoon.

Gustav weakened somewhat to a Category 2 storm as it neared landfall along the mostly evacuated Louisiana coast. The National Hurricane Center said the storm, with 110-mph winds, should hit somewhere southwest of New Orleans by midday.

In Waterville, Ohio, McCain visited a disaster relief center, and helped pack cleaning supplies and other items into plastic buckets that will 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.

McCain spoke briefly to reporters and quoted a phrase from Green's business card.

"Each one should use whatever gift he or she has received to serve others faithfully administering God's grace in its various forms," the Arizona senator said. "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, who visited Mississippi on Sunday, said that while there is now better coordination among federal, state and local authorities, there are still problems.

"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. It's not perfect, but I think that it's dramatically different than it was in response to Katrina," McCain said in an interview broadcast on NBC's "Today" show. The interview was taped on Sunday.

Cindy McCain and his new running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, arrived in the convention city Sunday night.

Laura Bush made a round of delegates breakfasts. She told Texas delegates at her first stop that she's proud to finally get her wish to vote for a Republican woman on a presidential ticket.

While she and the president had been surprised by McCain's pick Palin, "We know what kind of women Alaska produces. We know how tough and strong she is," Mrs. Bush said.

Earlier, she said she knew delegates were disappointed that Monday's night's opening gala had been canceled . "But everyone understands it, everyone is thinking about everybody all across the Gulf Coast," she told "The Early Show" on CBS. "All their eyes are on the Gulf Coast and everyone is thinking about that."

The mood among the Louisiana delegation remained upbeat as the storm approached. Speaking at a breakfast Monday, former Gov. Buddy Roemer told home-state delegates: "The early returns from Louisiana are good, to put it in political terms." But he added, "I've won and lost elections in the last hour and the same is true with hurricanes - it's not over 'til it's over."

Party officials were attempting to refocus convention efforts, at least in part, toward raising funds for relief efforts.

The Ohio delegation held a riverboat cruise on the Mississippi Sunday night as planned, but turned the event into a relief fundraiser. Kevin DeWine, deputy GOP chairman for Ohio, said some $20,000 was raised.

Concerned about negative images of partying delegates while Gulf Coast residents suffer, 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 on Sunday ahead of the storm's landfall on Monday.

The GOP also is overseeing an effort by the American Red Cross and the Minneapolis-based Target department store chain to assemble comfort packs for Gulf Coast residents at the Minneapolis convention center on Monday.

GOP Chairman Robert "Mike" Duncan said on Sunday that certain legal requirements had to be met despite the decision to truncate the convention in order to legally place McCain and running mate Sarah Palin's names in nomination.

He said the convention would meet on Monday to establish a quorum, adopt convention rules, elect officers and approve the party platform.

One piece of business slated for Monday was of special interest to delegations from Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina: a rule aimed at cementing their leadoff status for the 2012 campaign.

The rule declares that no state can hold its primary or caucus before the first Tuesday in March, except for Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. They, in turn, cannot hold their votes before the first Tuesday in February, a stark contrast to this year, when Iowa held its caucuses on Jan. 3, and New Hampshire and South Carolina held their primaries on Jan. 8 and Jan. 19, respectively.

"It pushes back the calendar and it slows it down, and that's a big gift for us," said Tom Rath, a New Hampshire delegate and member of the convention's Credentials Committee.

Protesters planned to go forward with a peace march that had been expected to draw 50,000 people to the state capital.

"Our voices will be front and center, and it will be the main news that is happening," said Jess Sundin, spokeswoman for the Coalition to March on the RNC and Stop the War.

The Arizona senator said the remainder of the convention schedule would be driven by storm developments. He raised the possibility of accepting the nomination on Thursday in a Gulf Coast speech beamed back to the delegates 1,000 miles to the north.

Democratic nominee Barack Obama received a briefing Sunday from Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. The Illinois senator pledged to use his vast supporter e-mail list to seek relief for storm victims. He also said he might visit storm-damaged areas once things have "settled down."

Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. Joe Biden skipped a planned appearance at a Labor Day parade in Pittsburgh to monitor storm developments. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., said Biden was still expected to visit Scranton, his childhood hometown, later Monday.

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