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Page last updated at 02:51 GMT, Tuesday, 2 September 2008 03:51 UK

'Stormy' dilemma for Republicans

By Adam Brookes
BBC News, St Paul, Minnesota

Cindy McCain and Laura Bush in St Paul, 1 Sept
Cindy McCain and Laura Bush urged support for Gulf Coast residents
The weird interplay between crisis and opportunity is much in evidence in St Paul, Minnesota.

Hurricane Gustav, it became clear very quickly on Sunday, had spoiled the Republican convention party.

If Gustav's own destructive potential wasn't enough, its ability to remind everyone of the worst single moment in George W Bush's presidency, Hurricane Katrina, really put the political frighteners on.

But John McCain campaign pivoted on a dime. There would be no fiery political speeches and only greatly scaled-down festivities until further notice, came the order. The correct tone would be one of resolve and sympathy for the people of the Gulf Coast.

Much of Monday's planned convention hoopla was cancelled, leaving some businesslike party proceedings and a speech by Laura Bush the only events on the floor of the massive Xcel Energy Center.

Senior Republicans were struggling all day with the question of how much convention would be appropriate.

As Hurricane Gustav made landfall, they watched in order to gauge just how much of a tragedy the storm would unleash before deciding whether to go ahead with events scheduled for Tuesday.

Clearly, this was not the plan. The plan was to launch Mr McCain on the final leg of the race to the White House amid all the glitz and passion and unity the Republican Party could muster. And to render Republicans sufficiently enthused about the candidate that they would start opening their cheque books.

Crisis or opportunity?

But it began dawning on observers in St Paul on Monday that perhaps an unanticipated crisis - if handled properly - may be a better electoral tonic than any shiny scripted event.

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

John McCain, in moving quickly and decisively to rethink the convention, has shown political adroitness.

He has also managed to avoid being seen at the same event as President George W Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, both of whom decided to stay away - a fact that engendered relief in some Republican delegates.

The senator is wrestling mightily to distance himself from the Bush presidency, and to counter Barack Obama's damaging slogan that a McCain presidency would mean "Four more years of Bush".

And even this foreshortened convention suddenly has a sense of purpose and identity it might have struggled to achieve without the storm.

In short, if he's deft and lucky, Mr McCain could come out of this looking alert, decisive, leaderly, and crucially very different to President Bush who botched Katrina.

Crisis. Opportunity.

'Weird event'

Their interplay doesn't stop there.

Justin Webb
Plainly the backdrop of images of destruction reminding Americans of Katrina will be horrible for the Republicans
BBC North America editor Justin Webb

On Monday, the Republicans' choice of candidate for Vice President, Sarah Palin, dropped a small but pungent gobbet of news.

Her unmarried, 17-year-old daughter, Bristol, was pregnant, she revealed.

The announcement was forced from the Palin campaign by a slew of nasty internet rumours about her personal life (most of them untrue) circulating in the last few days.

Still, it's a tricky one for Mrs Palin to explain, one might think: her still half-formed political persona is that of a wholesome mother of five, champion of healthy families and socially conservative causes.

Could she really have allowed her young daughter to have gone off the rails in such a way?

Though here in St Paul, Republican delegates quickly and deftly pointed out that an unplanned teen pregnancy in the family just puts the Palin family in a well-peopled category of American society, and makes her look all the more human for it.

"Life happens!" said one female delegate, cheerily. "She'll do the right thing."

Crisis. Opportunity.

This is turning into a rather weird event. One keeps wondering what's going to happen next, and when we might hear something about policy or electoral strategy.

But it's not necessarily the disaster for the Republicans it might have been. There are worse things for politicians to be responding to than heroic relief efforts and babies.


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