ST. PAUL, Minn. Republicans swung their convention back on a political track Tuesday after a pause for Hurricane Gustav, giving President Bush an abbreviated slot for a televised address promoting John McCain's candidacy for the White House. Former Democrat Joe Lieberman and TV star and former Sen. Fred Thompson got prominent roles.
The president will address the convention by satellite from the White House for about eight minutes, a condensed appearance worked out in negotiations between Bush and McCain aides. Bush originally had planned to speak for 15 minutes. The White House also left it up to McCain's campaign as to whether Bush made his remarks in person or in a televised appearance from Washington, and it was decided he would speak from the White House.
McCain's little-known running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, provided an unwelcome convention distraction a day earlier with the announcement that her unmarried 17-year-old daughter is pregnant and that a private attorney has been retained to represent the governor in an investigation into the dismissal of the state public safety commissioner. The revelations raised questions about whether Palin's background was fully explored before she was picked.
McCain, touring a Philadelphia fire house, said Tuesday, "The vetting process was completely thorough and I'm grateful for the results." His advisers say he had known about the governor's daughter's pregnancy.
The White House said it should not be a political issue. "I think that President Bush ... believes this is a private family matter," White House press secretary Dana Perino said Tuesday. "The family obviously loves their daughter very much, and that this baby, when it is born, will have the full love and support of a very loving family."
There was a flurry of last-minute changes as Republicans tried to patch together a new schedule for the three remaining days of their convention. Monday's opening session was abbreviated and stripped of sharp political rhetoric as the nation kept its focus on Gustav, once seen as a major threat to the Gulf Coast. The hurricane turned out to be less devastating than feared, allowing the GOP to lift the McCain-imposed ban on partisanship.
Bush had been in line to speak to the convention in person Monday night but instead went to Texas to be with disaster workers as Gustav threatened the Gulf. Some Republicans had breathed a sigh of relief to have the unpopular president out of the way and off the television screens. But Bush still was guaranteed a warm welcome from fellow Republicans in the convention hall.
The president's brief appearance appeared to be the middle ground between giving Bush a major convention assignment and shutting him out entirely. Asked if convention planners said Bush should not come, press secretary Perino said, "I wouldn't put it that way. We were in touch with them, and we were trying to figure out what would work best for them and what would work best for the president."
She said Bush would "throw his enthusiastic support behind John McCain for president." The president will resume a high-profile schedule on Wednesday by traveling to Louisiana to survey Gustav's aftermath. He visited emergency command centers in Texas on Monday.
Initially, the White House was so concerned about intruding on McCain's show that aides would neither confirm nor even discuss the ongoing planning for what was widely known to be happening: that Bush would speak on Tuesday night. Bush aides were hypersensitive about any move that might offend McCain or be seen as trumping his show a byproduct of McCain's delicate effort to distance himself from the president.
Thompson, a former senator from Tennessee, was one of McCain's rivals for the Republican nomination. Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut, was the Democrats' vice presidential candidate in 2000 and now is a McCain supporter. Republicans say the two will talk about McCain's life and their friendship with him. Former McCain rivals Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee also were expected to be squeezed in. Romney was on the convention stage Tuesday morning testing out the setup.
Laura Bush dropped in on a breakfast of the Michigan delegation and said that battleground state "can really be in play this time. ... I think we have a really good chance of carrying Michigan."
The revamped schedule suggested that convention planners were easing back into partisan politics with an appeal to independent-minded voters. Thompson is known by most voters for his portrayal of a gruff district attorney on NBC's "Law & Order."
Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani will give the convention's keynote speech Wednesday night rather than Tuesday, another switch caused by the hurricane, party officials said.
Lieberman, who left the Democratic Party after losing a Senate primary, has angered many Democrats by criticizing their nominee, Barack Obama.
"I'm not going to spend any time tonight attacking Sen. Obama," Lieberman told CNN, but he added that he would explain "why I am an independent Democrat voting for Sen. McCain."
The convention seeks to reintroduce Americans to McCain and provide a high-profile introduction for Palin. The governor of Alaska for nearly two years, she is little-known outside of her state.
So far, Palin has not conducted a formal news conference or taken questions from reporters, and no such sessions were scheduled Tuesday. Her only statement Monday disclosed that her daughter Bristol was pregnant and planned to marry the baby's father.
People who think Palin won't be able to hold her own in a vice presidential debate are underestimating her and overestimating Democrat Joe Biden, California party chairman Ron Nehring told his state's delegates Tuesday.
Nehring called Biden a bully and said that "if he pulls any of that stuff onstage with Sarah Palin, he's going to remind every woman in America of her ex-husband."
Under the weight of Gustav, speeches at the convention on Monday were light on red-meat rhetoric and heavy with appeals for donations to victims of the Gulf Coast storm, which was the main message in brief remarks from Laura Bush and her would-be successor, Cindy McCain.
Obama also appealed to his supporters, asking them in a mass e-mail and text message to donate to the Red Cross. His schedule for the rest of the week was up in the air as he returned to Chicago headquarters to monitor the storm's aftermath.
Outside the Xcel Energy Center where the convention officially began, police contended with thousands of protesters, some of whom attacked a group of Connecticut delegates.
Others smashed cars, punctured tires and threw bottles, while many marched peacefully in a gathering that was initially conceived as an anti-war demonstration. Police arrested a few protesters for lighting a trash container on fire and pushing it into a police car.