During day one, and up until last morning, hurricane Gustav threatened the Gulf Coast putting a dark cloud of its own over the Xcel Centre in downtown St. Paul where Republicans are gathered for their National Convention. Some southern delegates were offered a charter plane by the McCain campaign to return to their homes and families in the Gulf states while others elected to remain. A hurricane information centre was set up for convention attendees to track the storm. By last morning, Gustav had been downgraded from category 3 to two and finally to category 1. McCain’s team canceled much of the events save some procedural voting for day one and promised to shorten the second day’s schedule if Gustav had caused significant damage.
In conversation with GOP staff, I soon understood from them that a silver lining to the hurricane for the McCain campaign was that President Bush’s anticipated appearance early in the RNC schedule would be canceled or significantly muted. Part of McCain’s central strategy among independents and swing voters is to differentiate himself from the current administration and having President Bush occupied with operations in Louisiana/Texas would shift focus away from Bush as a polarizing figure and fellow partisan. Indeed, while 79% of delegates have a favourable view of the President, Bush’s approval rating rests at 33%. Perhaps, as recognition of this, as President Bush addressed the assembled delegates on Tuesday night, he did so via feed from the White House. The President was either not afforded live feedback or the segment was taped, as natural pause points in his speech were out of sync with audience reaction. For example, sustained applause wouldn’t stop the US President from continuing his speech. Also, as an interesting side-note, Bush did not address the audience as “my fellow Republicans” directly referencing his affiliation with GOP delegates, and as former President Bill Clinton did to his “fellow Democrats” in Denver. Instead, he opted for a more general “my fellow citizens”.
Following the segment from the President, former GOP primary contender Fred Thompson gave a rousing and folksy speech. He also described John McCain’s service in Vietnam and the inflicted brutality at the hands of McCain’s POW jailers during that war. You could hear a pin drop in the arena if it weren’t for the industrial sized ventilation system whirring in the background. Thompson linked McCain’s service to country with those that serve today and noted the senator’s “maverick” streak describing a record of troublemaking that extended from the military academy through going after crooked Democrat and Republican lobbyists alike and abusive corporations that exploited Americans. Thompson also took time to defend the honour of presumptive GOP Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin and the attacks concerning her family among the left-wing netroots activists. This elicited some of the loudest cheers during the former senator’s speech. The pregnancy of Palin’s 17-year old unwed daughter became a tempting focal point for some Obama supporters, but the junior senator from Illinois made it explicit that any staffer on his campaign would be immediately fired if they pursued Palin on this front. Democratic VP nominee Joe Biden echoed this sentiment yesterday declaring family “off-limits”. Perhaps the loudest cheers during the speech interestingly came when Thompson declared that McCain would be a champion for pro-life advocates.
Up next was Independent Democrat Joe Lieberman who gave his endorsement for the McCain-Palin ticket before the Republican crowd. Applause was moderate and polite for most of his speech which had a strong emphasis on McCain’s record of reaching across the aisle to cooperate on legislative initiatives with Democrats. Perhaps the most damning among the remarks from the former VP-half of the the Gore for President 2000 Democratic ticket was his warning of Barack Obama saying that “eloquence is not substitute for a record” and that through Senator Obama’s 3 year Senate record, he has not reached across the aisle once to work with Republicans. Lieberman’s speech was intended to serve as a credible testimonial to McCain’s “maverick” status and ability to reach out to independents and Democrats. Interestingly, as this day’s theme was “reform”, Lieberman underscored this point by saying that McCain’s independent streak and Palin’s record of reform would allow their administration to clean up Washington. This has been a strong theme among both campaigns.
The wifi access in the Xcel Center has been non-existent, so blogging updates may come via Blackberry from now on.