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Stephan Savoia, Associated Press
Cindy and John McCain stand outside FEMA building in Pearl, Miss., before the senator announced changes to the GOP convention.

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Gustav has crashed the Republicans' party.

Arizona Sen. John McCain, the party's presumptive presidential nominee, announced Sunday that a significant portion of the weeklong national convention will be canceled because of the immediate threat from Hurricane Gustav to the Gulf States. The paring will begin today, when the only item scheduled will be the opening of the convention.

Tonight was supposed to be when President Bush spoke to delegates, but Bush will instead stay in Texas and Louisiana to monitor the hurricane situation.

Utah delegates are disappointed to see the changes, primarily because they're due to another threat to a region still recovering from Hurricane Katrina, which hit in 2005.

"I think the whole focus of the convention is going to change to a service atmosphere and fundraising efforts for the victims," said Todd Weiler, a delegate and the vice chairman of the state party.

Weiler said the biggest disappointment, personally, was that his 11-year-old son would not see the president speak. But that is a minor concern for him.

Also, Utah delegates are disappointed Vice President Dick Cheney canceled his trip to Minnesota. He was scheduled to stay at the same hotel as the Utah delegation.

Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., after a speech to the Arizona delegation, said the potential disaster gives Americans a chance to see how the GOP nominee would handle a crisis as president.

"It kind of makes it more exciting to be here," Huntsman said. "It'll be reality TV."

The governor said the state has already been contacted by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the Utah Department of Public Safety is readying a response. Although Utah was the first state to accept Hurricane Katrina evacuees, that probably will not be necessary this time.

State Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, said the efforts of party members at the convention will serve to reinforce the convention's central theme, "Country First."

National party officials, in a news release Sunday, said the week's events are in flux but that pretty much everything except official business to open the convention would be canceled. They also formed the Affected States Working Group and established an Affected States Information Center.

McCain's campaign has also chartered a DC-9, which will be used to fly delegates from affected states home.

Rick Davis, the campaign manager for McCain, said the party needs to focus on the hurricane.

"We are deeply concerned about the safety and welfare of the residents of the Gulf State region," he said. "Our top priority is to assist those who will be affected by Hurricane Gustav. This is not a time for politics or celebration. It is a time for us to come together as Americans and assist the residents of the Gulf states."

The hasty reordering of an event months in the making underscored not only the risk posed by Gustav but also an intense desire by McCain and Republicans to avoid the political damage that Bush suffered from his widely criticized response to Hurricane Katrina three years ago.

The formal business of the convention includes nominating McCain for president and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his vice presidential running mate on Wednesday. McCain's acceptance speech, set for prime time on Thursday evening, is among the most critical events of the campaign for his chances of winning the White House.

McCain said he was looking forward to attending the convention but did not say when he would arrive. He spoke via satellite from St. Louis after he and Palin received a briefing on hurricane preparations in Jackson, Miss.

McCain said of his briefing in Mississippi: "I'm happy to report to you that the coordination and the work that's being done at all levels appears to be excellent." He cited remaining challenges in communications and search and rescue operations but emphasized that the response seemed to be going more smoothly than the one three years ago.

"I have every expectation that we will not see the mistakes of Katrina repeated," he said.

The Bush administration's handling of that storm contributed to a plunge in the president's approval ratings that helped the Democrats win control of Congress in 2006.

The uncertainty contrasted with a state of readiness here inside the Xcel Energy Center, a hockey arena transformed into a made-for-television red-carpeted convention hall. Thousands of red, white and blue balloons nestled in netting high above the floor — to be released during final-night festivities if the Republicans decide to go ahead with them.

Utah delegation leaders said Sunday night they will discuss in detail how to handle the cancellations during their morning breakfast meeting today. Although nothing was set, that could include fundraising and additional service projects beyond the one they had already scheduled for Tuesday.

What is no longer important, said Senate President John Valentine, R-Orem, is politics. The only thing they absolutely needed to handle during the convention is making sure the McCain is the official party nominee, so he can be on the ballot in November.

"The mood is serious and businesslike," he said. "It's no longer political."


Contributing: Associated Press


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