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Republican Convention diary

Max Deveson, Mike Bayham and Jennifer Copestake


Republican Party delegate Mike Bayham joins the BBC's Max Deveson and Jennifer Copestake to report on the drama, tension and razzmatazz of this week's Republican Convention.

MIKE BAYHAM: A DAY OF SURPRISES

2 September: 0030 local time (0530 GMT)

We were told on Sunday evening that potential First Lady Cindy McCain would be visiting the Louisiana delegation during breakfast on Monday morning. Upon arriving at the official Louisiana delegation hotel, we were then informed that Mrs McCain would only be offering brief remarks going into her introduction of current First Lady Laura Bush.

I figured it was for the best that I put off my venture amongst the rabid thespians of street theatre for another day

It had been reported with the toning down of the convention that Mrs Bush, along with her husband and Vice-President Dick Cheney, would not be speaking at the convention. The delegates gathered were surprised by their unexpected visitor who talked about the need for people regardless of party to come together in the face of the Gulf Coast crisis as Americans.

Between the delegation breakfast and lunch, my mind once again left politics and focused on matters back at home as Hurricane Gustav tore its way across south Louisiana. I received sporadic reports via cell phone and text message about how the storm surge was topping our rebuilt levees alongside the Industrial Canal in the Lower 9th Ward.

It was fairly touch and go, with other reports coming in that other flood protection barriers were close to being compromised.

Lunch was sponsored at the Hard Rock Cafe in downtown Minneapolis by the national Young Republicans and other youth-vote-oriented organisations. The person originally scheduled to speak was Lauren Huckabee, the daughter-in-law of former Arkansas governor and evangelical presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. However I saw Janet Huckabee approaching the restaurant with her husband in tow.

Before leaving, I had the chance to speak briefly with Huckabee and he inquired as to what the conditions were in New Orleans.

At the conclusion of the Hard Rock event, I received a text message informing me that the convention, which had been retooled with the advent of Gustav and would begin at 2.45 pm.

The ride from Minnesota's largest city to its neighbouring capital of St Paul seemed to take forever. I got my first indication we were near the Excel Center upon seeing police in heavy riot gear and a double metal mesh fence. Behind the fence were protestors, primarily anti-war activists mixed with Ron Paul supporters.

My home community... did not flood and the worst of Gustav for St Bernard was over - all of a sudden this hurricane evacuee felt like breaking protocol and celebrating

As there was considerable security separating the delegation from the rowdies in addition to running a tad bit late for the convention, I figured it was for the best that I put off my venture amongst the rabid thespians of street theatre for another day.

The convention itself had a sleepy feel to it. The set-up was plain, having little else than a podium in front a large video screen that mostly replayed footage of an American flag waving. Of what is now four national GOP conventions I had attended, this one had a listless feel to it.

What with the hurricane and the word getting out about Sarah Palin's teenage daughter's pregnancy, the half-empty sports arena was slightly subdued. Back to the Palin matter later.

Being a delegate, I had fairly good access to the venue and mainly walked around the delegations on the floor trying to pick out the notables... it goes without saying that there is a considerable glitterati deficit between the GOP and the Democrats.

The following persons of note were present: two WWE wrestlers (female grappler Mickey James and Mr Kennedy), John Voight (best known as Angelina Jolie's father), Hollywood slapstick director David Zucker (best known for Airplane! And the Naked Gun series), Robert Davi (best known as James Bond villain Franz Sanchez from the drug-themed 007 feature License to Kill) and John McCain's 96-year-old mother Roberta.

Oh, there was also musician Pat Boone, who sat in the California delegation. I could not help but succumb to a little vanity and asked the elderly looking gentleman with him to take my picture of with singer. After fumbling with my digital camera, Boone's companion obliged. I would later learn that the old man who took my photograph was none other than billionaire Ted Turner!

The convention then adjourned earlier than originally planned, around 1800, out of respect for those individuals still dealing with Gustav and people began to file out of the Excel Center.

En route back to the hotel I got a report from St Bernard Parish that was of great surprise to me: the battered levees that had failed so miserably in Hurricanes Katrina and Rita had contained Gustav.

St Bernard Parish, my home community that had been submerged under four metres of water in 2005, did not flood and the worst of Gustav for St Bernard was over.

All of a sudden this hurricane evacuee felt like breaking protocol and celebrating.

JENNIFER COPESTAKE: LOCAL WORSHIP

On Sunday I accompanied our delegate blogger Mike Bayham to a church service at the cathedral in St Paul. Republican delegates from many states including Louisiana gathered with local worshippers to pray for relief for New Orleans from Hurricane Gustav.

They prayed for the defence of the right to life for unborn children in the upcoming election and for God's guidance to the faithful to pick the right candidate. The priest warned that every election is a sign from God to set the future direction of the country. Once the direction is set, it is not easily reversed.

A reception was held for the delegates at the service in the gardens at the back of the Cathedral. I met this Texan family who told me why their support of the Republicans has gained strength after their father and husband was killed in Iraq.

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A family of three from Texas attend the Republican Convention

JENNIFER COPESTAKE: WHAT MONEY CAN BUY

While the Republican convention has been significantly scaled down there are still enough events around Minneapolis to keep delegates entertained. Before heading to the Rock the Vote party in downtown Minneapolis with our delegate blogger Mike Bayham I went to CivicFest, a welcoming event at the Minneapolis convention centre. A wide range of wares were on sale for the Republican in your life from faux-gold American flag roses to prayer pillows.

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Republican delegate Mike Bayham on the wide range of goods on sale at the party convention.

MAX DEVESON: CHAMPING AT THE BIT

1 September: 1720 local time (2320 GMT)

Republican delegates finally had something to cheer about - and someone to cheer at - this afternoon, when First Lady Laura Bush and prospective First Lady Cindy McCain addressed the convention.

And they stuck to the bipartisan script, keeping politics out of their speeches almost.

Mrs Bush managed to drop into her remarks the fact that all of the Gulf Coast governors currently working hard to keep their states safe in the face of Hurricane Gustav just happen to be Republicans, eliciting a roar of applause from the audience.

One of the aforementioned governors - Rick Perry of Texas - also referred to the party affiliation of his fellow south coast governors, and he too received a big cheer.

The rest of the day's proceedings remained resolutely non-partisan, as per John McCain's instructions. Mrs Bush and Mrs McCain used their podium time to urge delegates to donate to a number of disaster relief charities.

But the audience's response to these small glimpses of politics-as-usual indicates that delegates here are champing at the bit for a chance to cheer on their party.

If the convention gets back on track before Thursday, they will respond enthusiastically to any and every piece of political red meat thrown their way.

MAX DEVESON: BUSH'S ABSENCE

1 September: 1530 local time (2130 GMT)

What happens if you organise a protest march and the people you're protesting against don't show up?

That's what happened in St Paul today, as thousands of anti-war protesters descended on the downtown area to demonstrate against President Bush on the day that he was due to address the convention.

The problem: Mr Bush had cancelled his speech in order to focus his efforts on disaster relief in the gulf coast area affected by Hurricane Gustav.

So the marchers were left without a target for their protests.

It was billed as an anti-war march, but the protesters had plenty of other issues on their mind, as the range of banners they were carrying showed.

I spotted people with placards in favour of immigrants' rights, against a war in Iran, in support of the Palestinians, against big corporations and in favour of rights for Native Americans.

But what the demonstration lacked in focused messaging, it made up for in numbers - between 2,000 and 10,000 people took part, depending on whether you believe the police or the organisers.

Although the majority of marchers appeared to be behaving peacefully, a few blocks away from the route of the demonstration I saw a police car with its windows smashed in and its tyres slashed, parked outside a Macy's department store which had had two windows shattered.

There have also been reports that police used pepper spray on a group of protesters who had attempted to break through a cordon.

These protests tell us little about the internal workings of the Republican Party. After all, most members now appear to be supportive of the surge in Iraq, and John McCain's consistent support for the war in Iraq was key to his success in the primaries.

But they do suggest that should Mr McCain win in November, the opponents of his policies will not keep their opinions to themselves.

MIKE BAYHAM: THE SHOW MUST GO ON

1 September: 0320 local time (0820 GMT)

Will There Be a Convention? Will There Be a New Orleans?

I am taking part in the pre-eminent event in the Republican political calendar, but I have found myself more concerned with the weather 1,200 miles down the Mississippi River, as Hurricane Gustav churns its way towards the Louisiana coastline.

During Hurricane Katrina, my hometown of Chalmette, a suburb of New Orleans, was inundated with over 4m of water in many areas. Almost that much engulfed my townhouse - I had 30cm of it on my second floor. It's been suggested that Gustav could very well send an even greater volume of water to a city still struggling to find its feet again on the third anniversary of Katrina.

And though St. Paul, Minnesota, is on the opposite side of the US from New Orleans, the same hurricane that threatens Louisiana's largest city also threatens the 2008 Republican National Convention.

Talk of cancelling or shortening the convention has evolved into a plan to limit celebrations. More than a few party leaders feared a potential media backlash and political exploitation by the Democrats of images of Republicans hitting the cocktail circuit while people were stranded on top of their roofs.

I incurred great loss in Katrina, but my view is that the show must go on.

While anachronistic in many ways, party conventions officially name the candidates in the election. It is up to the assembled delegates at the convention to go through the process of actually naming the party standard-bearers in November. So between the partying, schmoozing and socializing important stuff gets done at these events.

Furthermore, there was little for Louisiana delegates to do but remain in Minnesota. Orders for the mandatory evacuation of residents in much of south Louisiana had gone into effect the day before so staying home - hardly a preferable choice due to possible severe flooding and probable loss of electricity for many days - was not even an option.

The evening closed at a Rock the Vote/Myspace.com event populated by young people primarily interested in guzzling free drinks

As it was the Sabbath, I and several members of my state's Catholic delegation felt a need to seek Divine intervention for our home and attended Sunday evening Mass at St Paul Cathedral, a massive granite building capped with an impressive dome. The Archbishop of Minneapolis-St. Paul celebrated the ritual and invited those delegates from other states to attend a modest reception on the cathedral's grounds at the conclusion of Mass.

I also spent some time at Civic Fest, a kind of political junkie conclave in which attendees can view travelling exhibitions pertaining to American history and politics, buy gaudy elephant memorabilia and take novelty pictures inside a faux Oval Office or in front of a mock-up of Air Force One. One does not need be a delegate to attend the event.

The evening closed at a Rock the Vote/Myspace.com event at a club in Minneapolis that was populated by young people who were not necessarily Republicans but were primarily interested in guzzling free drinks and listening to one of the two bands that performed.

Towards the end of the evening I received some positive news on Gustav from home: the storm had not only weakened but its position changed such that a repeat of Katrina's mess seemed unlikely. With the eye of the storm due pass over Louisiana at 1400 on Monday, even the formal nomination of man for what American's consider the most powerful position in the world didn't seem as important as the weather down south.

MAX DEVESON: A SLIMMED-DOWN CONVENTION

31 August: 1930

This will be a very different convention.

Because of Hurricane Gustav, the Republicans have decided to scale down the event dramatically.

We are going into the first day of the convention not knowing if there will be any convention (in the traditional sense of the word) at all.

All we do know is that at some point over the next four days, John McCain will officially become the Republican Party's presidential candidate.

But as to whether there will be rousing political speeches, passionate policy debates, or riotous parties - we just don't know.

Day One of the convention, which had been scheduled to feature a speech from President Bush, will now consist simply of procedural motions.

Decisions about the schedule on subsequent days will be made each morning, as officials monitor the situation in the hurricane zone.

Senator McCain may even cancel his speech and accept his party's nomination by satellite from the affected area.

What effect will all this have on the Republicans' fortunes?

Well, they will be losing their chance to present their best face to voters - and introduce John McCain's virtually unknown running-mate Sarah Palin to the country.

But slimming down their convention to deal with a natural disaster could help the Republicans by allowing them to appear serious, self-denying and presidential.

And it will also draw attention away from the smallness of their convention, compared to last week's Democratic shindig.

My first thought on entering the Republicans' convention venue (the Xcel Energy Centre in St Paul, Minnesota) was how much smaller it felt than the Pepsi Center in Denver, where the Democrats held their convention, let alone the 75,000 capacity Invesco Stadium, where Barack Obama made his acceptance speech.

There is no doubt that by opting to scale down the convention, John McCain is putting the national interest ahead of his party's interests.

But it might just be that in this case his party's interests actually coincide with his country's interests

OUR DIARISTS

Mike Bayham is a Republican delegate from the state of Louisiana. He is chairman of the New Orleans Young Republicans and has served on the Louisiana Republican State Committee since 1996. He's pledged to back John McCain for the party's presidential nomination, though he personally supported Mike Huckabee in the primaries. "I guess you could call me a Reagan Conservative," he says. "I believe the party should stand by its social conservative base, while also reaching out to new voters. The GOP is known for being too stuffy - I think it needs to be a Big Tent."

At the age of 34, this is already Mike's fourth convention. "On the floor of the convention, if you are a delegate, you are officially on the same par as congressmen, governors and wealthy power brokers. Among the people I have met at previous conventions are a future president (George W. Bush in 1996), Arnold Schwarzenegger and Rudy Giuliani," he says. "I can't imagine any other country having a political event like this."

Max Deveson, 30, is the BBC News website's Washington reporter. He joined the BBC in 2001 to work as a political analyst in Westminster, later moving to the online world news team. He has an obsessive interest in the US and its politics and was particularly excited to land an interview with Ted Kennedy on his first assignment in Washington this year. When not obsessing about US politics, Max enjoys attempting to play Iron and Wine songs on the guitar.

Jennifer Copestake, 25, is an online video producer for World News America. She's been with the programme since its first broadcast in October 2007. After the conventions she'll be video-blogging from a BBC election bus on a 38-day road trip across the country. Jennifer was born in Canada and has reported for the CBC, the Hill Times, the Observer and More 4 News. She's been in Washington since early summer, but will return one day to London, where she lives with her fiance and two cats.



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