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Forecast: High pressure system

Politics | Palin and Gustav take Republican convention by storm, but political experts say it will take hurricane strength for McCain ticket to weather the general campaign

Issue: "Northern light," Sept. 20, 2008

ST. PAUL, Minn.-On a rainy afternoon in downtown St. Paul, Minn., one of the rowdier parties of the Republican National Convention (RNC) opened with a four-piece band, an open bar, and long-time evangelical leader Phyllis Schlafly.

Social conservatives and evangelicals decked out in red-white-and-blue and flashing American flag buttons packed the second-floor ballroom of the swanky Crowne Plaza Hotel at a reception for pro-life Republicans overjoyed about one person: Gov. Sarah Palin.

The crowd of nearly 800 RNC delegates and other Republicans paid $95 each to attend the standing-room-only event where Palin was originally slated to speak. The pro-life Alaska governor would not make an appearance, but only because she had accepted a more pressing assignment just four days earlier: running for the Republican vice presidency. Schlafly told the cheering crowd that Palin had energized conservatives once sluggish over Sen. John McCain's presidential bid: "All those people who were holding back, not sure, are now excited and ready to go to work and elect the McCain-Palin ticket this year."

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Just how Palin-energized was this crowd? When a pair of protesters slipped onto the stage next to Schlafly, carrying signs reading "Pro-life = Universal Healthcare," and briefly commandeering the microphone, the crowd drowned them out by chanting: "Sarah! Sarah!" They also hoisted pro-Palin signs and wore buttons and T-shirts emblazoned with the candidate's name. One elderly man in a tan suit boasted a homemade sign taped to his back: "Elect Sarah." McCain's name barely surfaced at the event.

If the previous week had belonged to Sen. Barack Obama at the Democratic National Convention (DNC) in Denver, the Republicans' week in Minnesota belonged to Palin. GOP leaders hailed McCain's surprise pick and fiercely defended the first-term governor during a week of intense media scrutiny that turned ugly in some quarters.

A week that included a hurricane in the Gulf Coast and a media firestorm in Minnesota tested Republicans already facing a stormy relationship with many voters. By week's end at least two things were clear: The party managed to weather some of the week's toughest challenges, but faced plenty more in the final two months of a neck-and-neck race for the White House.

The first storm of the week was wholly unexpected: Hurricane Gustav churned off the Gulf of Mexico and threatened to swamp the beleaguered Gulf Coast, including New Orleans residents. By Sunday evening, nearly 2 million Louisiana residents had fled their homes, marking the largest evacuation in the state's history.

Nearly 1,800 miles north, RNC officials were clamoring to revamp plans for the convention's opening night, fearing a celebratory event with political rhetoric would appear crass in the face of a potential disaster in the Gulf. On Sunday afternoon, McCain announced the RNC would scuttle most of its opening ceremonies and turn its attention to relief efforts in the South.

The next morning, RNC officials at the Minnesota Convention Center put the finishing touches on an assembly center for relief packages to aid Gulf Coast residents affected by Gustav. RNC spokeswoman Joanna Burgos said convention-planners would work with Target, FedEx, and the Red Cross to assemble 80,000 relief kits.

The assembly center was one part of an intense Republican effort to avoid the kind of fumbled response that dogged the federal government in Hurricane Katrina's wake exactly three years earlier. Republican officials and the McCain campaign scrambled to display compassion and competence to a wary public. President Bush hurried to Texas to monitor the unfolding storm, and first lady Laura Bush met with Louisiana delegates in Minnesota and helped lead fundraising efforts for hurricane relief at the RNC.

By Monday evening, the Gulf Coast had avoided a debilitating hit from Gustav, and RNC officials aimed to resume a normal schedule. But while Gustav had been swirling off the Gulf Coast, a political storm was brewing elsewhere: News broke that Palin's 17-year-old daughter, Bristol, was five months pregnant. The Palin family volunteered the news to dispel internet rumors that Palin's 4-month-old son belonged to Bristol.

The McCain campaign said it knew of the pregnancy before selecting Palin, and the Palin family released a statement saying Bristol planned to marry the unborn child's father, Levi Johnston. Palin and her husband, Todd, said they were "proud of Bristol's decision to have her baby, and even prouder to become grandparents."

If anyone expected social conservatives to pounce on the Palins, the opposite happened: Groups like the Family Research Council and Focus on the Family released statements supporting the Palin family and commending the young couple's decision to keep their unborn child.


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