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GOP scales back convention because of Hurricane Gustav

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ST. PAUL - John McCain does not want supporters partying while other Americans face the fury of Hurricane Gustav, so Republicans took the unprecedented action of canceling most events at today's opening of their national convention.

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"We are facing a great natural challenge," McCain said in a satellite video hook-up from St. Louis to St. Paul, where the curtailed convention begins today.

He asked convention officials to limit convention activities today. And his campaign chartered an airplane to fly home any Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida delegates who want to help families trying to escape Gustav. Some accepted the offer, McCain Campaign Manager Rick Davis said.

Today's opening of the Republican National Convention, in downtown St. Paul's Xcel Energy Center, will be a short session, dealing only with necessary business. Davis said there will be no political speeches.

President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney canceled planned speeches.

Legally, the convention must begin today. However, most convention activities are optional.

With McCain's Sunday afternoon announcement, today's only work will be approving delegate credentials and convention rules, electing convention officials and adopting the party platform, party Chairman Mike Duncan said.

That leaves just two jobs that must be done this week - nominating McCain as the party's presidential candidate and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate.

The convention is schedule to last through Thursday, when McCain planned to deliver his acceptance speech. Delegates are to vote for McCain and Palin nominations Wednesday.

Today's brief session, probably less than three hours, begins at 3 p.m.

Davis and Duncan said party officials will make decisions day by day as to whether the convention will return to normal.

"Hopefully, we can restore some of the events," Davis said.

Later, he added: "We do expect all the speakers to speak at some point."

Delegates said they approved of the decision to scale back activities.

"It's a question of priorities," said Marty Seifert of Marshall, the Minnesota House GOP leader. "You prioritize human beings in times of tragedy over political events, and I think that's the way we need to be acting."

Others said the convention's real work is limited to nominating their presidential ticket, so extra speeches can be scrapped.

"We're here to nominate John McCain; we're not here to have a party," said Michael Barrett, an alternate delegate from Browerville.

Barrett, a one-time 7th Congressional District candidate, said delegates will not be disappointed some of the attention has shifted away from Republicans' big event.

"We can actually do better by showing concern," he said. "It'd be really nice to have a nice media show, but we have to show compassion."

Barrett added: "The first couple days of the convention aren't that exciting anyway, right?"

Curtailing a national political convention is unprecedented. They have been held even during the Civil War and World War II.

McCain's campaign asked those sponsoring other events - organizations ranging from corporations to special-interest groups - to turn their activities into fund raisers for hurricane victims.

Most of the nearly 2,500 delegates and more than 40,000 others had arrived in St. Paul by Sunday afternoon.

McCain, in St. Louis after seeing hurricane preparation activities in Mississippi, said he did not think the mistakes the Bush administration made three years ago when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf of Mexico coast will be repeated.

Davis said the campaign even is looking into canceling television commercials.

"We are going to suspend most of our activities tomorrow," McCain said at mid-afternoon Sunday.

McCain urged those at the convention "to take off Republican hats and put on our American hats."

Convention leaders are looking at ways they can raise money for storm victims, but had not decided on anything Sunday evening.

"The time for action is now," McCain said.

Nearly a week ago, the McCain campaign began preparing Republican leaders for the chance that Gustav would curtail convention activities.

Democratic candidate Barack Obama, meanwhile, offered volunteers from his campaign to help with hurricane relief when it is needed.

His campaign and the Democratic Party canceled a GOP convention-opening news conference called to blast McCain.

The federal government has provided $50 million for convention-related Twin Cities security needs and $16.8 million for the convention itself. Private donations probably would add more than $40 to the total cost, although convention officials do not have a final tally.

While GOP officials said they would consider sending some of that money to hurricane victims, most it is already is spent or committed.

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Even though they face an uncertain convention because of the hurricane, Republicans say they are storming into St. Paul excited about their presidential ticket.

McCain's decision to pick Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin "stoked" Republicans, Barrett said.

He said Republicans like their chances even more with Palin because of her personal background and ability to push government reforms in just about two years as governor.

The ticket could attract independent voters in western and southern Minnesota, Barrett said, noting those are key areas Republicans where must focus to win the state.

"I think that with her on the ticket, I really see an honest chance for McCain to take Minnesota," he said. "People are just pumped."

McCain's selection pleased the Republican Party's loyal supporters and guaranteed a strong display of unity this week behind the presidential ticket.

"We do a good job of falling in line," Seifert said. "The pick of Palin really solidifies the base. I think it electrifies the conservatives more than what we originally were thinking."

State Capitol reporters are blogging from the Republican National Convention at www.areavoices.com/CapitolChat.

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