How Hurricane Gustav could affect Republicans

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Hurricane Gustav forced Sen. John McCain to curtail much of the Republican National Convention’s opening today and, thus, threatened to upend everything from GOP party-building efforts to the candidate’s own campaign strategy.

The change in McCain’s carefully scripted convention plans, with just two months left in a close race, could turn into a boon or a bust for the soon-to-be GOP nominee.

“We really don’t have the luxury of sort of trying to evaluate the politics of this kind of situation,” McCain campaign manager Rick Davis said. “I think we take it as it is. And right now, we have a horrible storm bearing down on the Gulf. People should be more concerned about that than a political campaign, and I think that’s the way we’re going to let the chips fall.”

The political effects could include:

Fundraising: Typically, conventions are awash in lobbyists, top-dollar donors, well-heeled fundraisers and politicians mixing at cocktail parties and glitzy galas. Now, the campaign wants partygoers to focus on hurricane relief efforts, avoiding the appearance of revelry amid suffering.

Advertising: McCain’s campaign has been on the air for months with hard-hitting political ads against rival Sen. Barack Obama. Now it will try to shift the tenor of its commercials, if not temporarily go dark on the airwaves.

Media coverage: Political conventions usually guarantee wall-to-wall television and newspaper exposure — all free. Now, the Gulf Coast is the priority of most of the national press corps. All broadcast network anchors were heading to the hurricane zone; they had planned to be in St. Paul.

Motivating the base: Candidates use their conventions to rally rank-and-file supporters ahead of the critical fall get-out-the-vote period. But it’s going to be hard to get ground troops excited at what seems to be turning into a somber, stripped-down gathering.

No payback: Obama and his Democrats skewered McCain and his Republicans last week at the Democratic National Convention in Denver. The GOP won’t get its four-day opportunity for paybacks. McCain’s campaign says it will be “refraining from the usual political rhetoric” today, if not all week.

Reminders of Katrina: The storm stokes reminders of the federal government’s botched response to Hurricane Katrina under Republican President Bush, almost three years to the day after that calamity. It also may give McCain an opportunity to demonstrate how he would be differ from Bush in handling such a crisis.

Message: McCain’s convention theme is “Country First,” and he had planned a carefully packaged presentation on how he would govern by that motto. Instead, McCain can show off his leadership abilities in real time by doing things such as visiting Mississippi and touring an emergency response center.

Momentum: The Arizona senator seemingly has had a couple of good weeks and was looking for a burst of momentum coming out of his convention heading into the campaign homestretch. It’s uncertain whether the storm will give him a boost, make him crater or keep him even with Obama. A lot depends on his performance.

Bush factor: The unpopular president and his even more unpopular vice president scrapped appearances in St. Paul because of the hurricane. That’s good news for a candidate looking to break from Bush. Conversely, McCain also is somewhat at the mercy of Bush and could be judged by how the sitting president handles this latest storm.

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