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Republican Convention In Tatters As Bush Heads To Hurricane Zone

By Ewen MacAskill

Speeches scrapped as Gustav threatens US Gulf coastline.

George Bush was today heading for Texas instead of the Republican party convention to inspect emergency efforts as hurricane Gustav raced towards the US Gulf coast.

The president, who was pilloried for his tardy response to hurricane Katrina three years ago, was to visit Austin and San Antonio as the last residents in New Orleans prepared for Gustav to make landfall.

He had been scheduled to appear before the Republican party in Minneapolis-St Paul to give his official blessing to Senator John McCain, the party’s presidential candidate who faces Barack Obama, his Democratic rival, in the November election.

But Gustav has thrown America’s political agenda into chaos with the biggest casualty being the Republican convention, which was due to open today.

McCain and his strategists announced yesterday they were cancelling almost all of today’s programme. It is the first time in living memory that a Republican or Democratic convention has been disrupted by a natural disaster.

In an interview broadcast yesterday, McCain said it would be inappropriate to have a “festive occasion” against the backdrop of a potential disaster.

The Republicans are especially sensitive because of Bush’s slow response to hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans almost three years ago.

“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 said in an interview recorded on Saturday with Fox News Sunday.

If Gustav creates widespread devastation in the Gulf states, the Republicans will have to consider scaling back on the remaining three days of the convention. All the speeches could be ditched. But for legal reasons the convention has to find time to formally adopt McCain as the party nominee for the November 4 election.

The disruption may work in his favour. He is not a good speaker and could be struggling to match Obama’s speech in front of 80,000 supporters in Denver on Thursday. Gustav offers him a get-out: he could accept the nomination by video or another alternative to a speech from a podium.

A truncated convention helps him in other ways too. His convention always threatened to be more fractious than the Democrats, with many Republicans prepared to voice unhappiness with him for not being conservative enough.

Crucially, hurricane Gustav offers the Republicans a chance to make amends for Bush’s failure three years ago. Charlie Crist, the Republican governor of Florida, told CNN that the level of preparation had been “tremendous“, showing lessons had been learned from Katrina. The speedy evacuation ordered yesterday contrasted with the lack of urgency in 2005.

It was Bush’s slow response to Katrina rather than the Iraq war that led to the public change in attitude to him and the resulting steady drop in polling ratings. Bush then stuck to a schedule that took him from his ranch in Texas and to California, happily strumming a guitar at one event. He only went to the New Orleans region five days after the hurricane struck.

Obama is almost certain to modify his campaign plans for the week because, like McCain, partisan speeches would be regarded as insensitive.

Obama, who won one of the biggest cheers of the night on Thursday when he told supporters that Bush had allowed a major US city, New Orleans, to drown, was more restrained yesterday: “Hopefully, we’ve learned from [hurricane Katrina’s] tragedy,” he said.

He has to balance a willingness to help without being seen as opportunistic. He offered to call on his huge supporter base, built up over 20 months of campaigning, to provide funds for disaster relief and to act as volunteers in the coastal region.

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