It was all business, but not business as usual as the Republican National Convention began in St. Paul today. The nation’s attention is elsewhere, on the Gulf Coast as Hurricane Gustav makes landfall and the GOP changes the focus of its gathering and message. In the midst of it all are the 34 members of the Nevada delegation.
Monday was to have been the start of a 4 day rollout of the fall campaign, a chance to reintroduce John McCain and his surprising running mate, a quick early visit by the president and vice president to fire up the base. Instead the president was touring emergency command centers in Texas and the candidate was in Ohio helping pack emergency supplies.
Attention may have been elsewhere, but in St. Paul there was still work to be done, but here too the focus was often on the storm. Delegates were urged to pick up their cell phones and contribute to a relief fund.
The Nevada delegation had already passed the hat earlier in the day, a cowboy hat actually. The take? A thousand dollars. It took just 2 and a half hours to take care of the necessary business of the convention, seating delegates, adopting a platform.
What will follow is still being decided. "It's hour by hour," says Nevada's National Committeewoman Heidi Smith. "We're getting text messages from the RNC. That's how we're staying in tune."
Republican officials say the podium schedule for the rest of the week will be determined on a day-to-day basis. Senator McCain is expected to deliver his acceptance speech as planned on Thursday.
The continuing focus is likely to be on events along the Gulf Coast until they play themselves out. While most would agree that's where the nation's attention will properly rest, inevitably there will be political fallout as well.
A predominant theme of the Obama campaign has been that McCain represents a third President Bush term. Smith agreed McCain's handling of this issue allows him the opportunity to draw differences between himself and the president's record, which includes charges his administration bungled the response to Hurricane Katrina 3 years ago.
The convention has drawn more than the Republican faithful and the national media to St. Paul. Thousands of anti-war protesters are also there. Late Monday afternoon, long after a peaceful march had dispersed, a group of protesters attacked delegates and threw bottles, smashing windows, and puncturing car tires. Police wielding pepper spray arrested at least 56 people. The violence erupted several blocks from the convention center, just as the Nevada delegation was leaving the hall.
"We saw them coming," said Smith. "So we walked a little faster than normal."
Other delegates weren’t so lucky. Members of the Connecticut delegation said they were attacked by protesters when they got off their bus near the convention center. Organizers of the anti-war march said they had hoped for a peaceful, family friendly event, but other groups held their own protests. Many were dressed in black and identified themselves to reporters as anarchists.