Page last updated at 02:40 GMT, Monday, 1 September 2008 03:40 UK

Convention blown off course

Delegate at Republican Convention
Some delegates have already arrived for the Republican Convention

By Jonathan Beale
BBC News, St Paul

Years of careful, painstaking preparations have been completed. The stage is set. The battle is about to begin.

But for the Republicans the choreography has been blown off course by events entirely out of their hands.

A hurricane, a natural disaster, an act of God is about to spoil the Grand Old Party's celebrations.

On the face of it this may already appear to be a disaster for the Republicans, even before Gustav has struck.

Some of the camera crews and reporters who had booked their flights and hotel rooms to Minneapolis are now on their way to the Gulf Coast instead.

The TV headlines are consumed with the hurricane's imminent arrival, not the mood of the Republicans.

Republicans scale down plans for the first day of their convention

And then there are all the reminders of Hurricane Katrina, three years on.

That was a moment of national shame for many - including an angry John McCain, who called the federal and local response to Katrina a "disgrace".

Katrina has also been used by the Democrats as a reason for the public to turn their backs on the party that elected George W Bush.

Yet there could be a silver lining for the silver-haired senator.

Gustav gives Mr McCain an opportunity to show how he would be a different president from George W Bush.

It offers a chance to show the country that a McCain administration would not be four more years of the same - as Barack Obama claims.

Hearts and wallets

John McCain and running mate Sarah Palin have already been to the Gulf Coast to witness the preparations.

It was from there that he announced that most of the activity of the first day of the convention would be suspended.

He told his delegates that it was time to take off their Republican hats and put their American ones on; a time to open their hearts and their wallets for those people whose lives could be ruined by Gustav.

Sarah Palin and John McCain
John McCain and his running mate Sarah Palin have visited the Gulf Coast

It is a wise move for a candidate whose convention slogan is "Service" and "Country First".

Those words, illuminated all around the convention hall, would have looked rather odd if the Republicans had ignored the plight of those living on the Gulf Coast.

In short, the order has gone out - there will be no fiddling while Rome burns.

So, no razzmatazz on the opening day. On Monday there will be no political speeches, just procedural activities that will allow the convention to officially get under way.

In the words of Rick Davis, the chairman of the McCain campaign "we want to be respectful of the situation".

We are even unsure when normal service will be resumed. There will be updates every day to react to what has happened on the Gulf Coast.

Balloons at the ready

But in reality the preparations are continuing.

Microphones and lights are being tested, 200,000 balloons have been suspended above the stage - ready to be dropped when John McCain closes the proceedings.

New Orleans street
New Orleans has prepared for the arrival of Hurricane Gustav

The show will go on, but not quite as planned. And that does not seem to worry the delegates and supporters from all corners of the states.

Take Kim Skipper - a delegate who has come all the way from Alaska. She told me that she still thought this would be a "great convention".

And, like many of the early arrivals, agrees with the way the party has reacted to the approaching hurricane.

"I know they [John McCain and Sarah Palin] would not have wanted a party atmosphere while our neighbours to the south are suffering."

Things are not as bad as they might look for the Republicans and John McCain.

Gustav may have just handed him the best opportunity to show that he is different from the last lot, that he is (for a moment at least) above party politics, and that he will be true to his word - putting his country first.

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