Gustav turns Republican convention topsy-turvy

The monster hurricane Hurricane Gustav has prompted last-minute changes in the Republican presidential nominating convention, despite the 2,000 kilometres that separate the midwestern state from the US Gulf Coast. ( dpa )

Mindful of avoiding political rhetoric and celebrations as the country watches a natural disaster unfold in New Orleans and the surrounding region, Republican delegates will only meet for two hours on the convention's opening day Monday to take care of essential business, the campaign manager for Senator John McCain, Rick Davis, said Sunday.

Normally, the first day of a presidential convention kicks off with party rhetoric and bombast, although there had been some uneasiness among McCain supporters about the appearance of US President George W Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.

McCain has in recent months avoided close connections with Bush, his popularity rating dragged down by a slumping economy and the war in Iraq.

But such worries disappeared with Bush's announcement Sunday that he would cancel his speech and travel instead to Texas, to be near the headquarters' operations for hurricane rescue and recovery efforts after the storm hits before noon on Monday.

Davis said that Republican delegates on Monday would conduct only essential business in St Paul - accreditation of party delegates and adoption of the party platform and rules.

Organizers would make decisions day-to-day about the programme on Tuesday and Wednesday, and it was not clear when the official nomination of McCain would take place. Candidates traditionally hold their acceptance speeches on Thursday.

It's the first time in anyone's memory that a party convention has been so drastically changed because of an outside event, a commentator told CNN.

"It just wouldn't be appropriate to have a festive occasion while a near-tragedy or a terrible challenge is presented in the form of a natural disaster," McCain said Saturday.

On Sunday, McCain said that Republicans would "take off our Republican hats and put on our America hats" instead. He urged Republicans to donate money to help the storm rescue effort.

Gustav is expected to blast the Gulf Coast and New Orleans with the full force of a category 3, possibly category 4, storm by mid to late morning Monday.

Gustav has already claimed dozens of lives as it blew up to 350 kilometres an hour across the Caribbean. Cuba evacuated 250,000 persons, and Jamaica was hard-hit.

In Louisiana, three people who were critically ill died during the evacuation of nursing homes and hospitals, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal said Sunday. Up to 1 million people have evacuated the Gulf Coast, and broadcast images showed bumper-to-bumper traffic on northbound roads. Southbound lanes had been converted to carry northbound traffic.

In 2005, more than 1,800 people were killed by Hurricane Katrina, and Bush's delayed government response to tens of thousands stranded in New Orleans was one of the blackest marks on his record.

McCain and his newly-minted vice presidential candidate, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, flew to the Gulf Coast region on Sunday.

McCain was optimistic that things would be better than Katrina this time around, and that the "mistakes" of the Katrina catastrophe would be avoided. He said he was impressed with the level of organization and preparation.

"There's no question that we're doing much better than in Katrina," said Michael Chertoff, secretary of homeland security. "We're evacuating three days ahead."

Republicans said they would push for contributions to aid those affected by the storm.

Convention plans for Tuesday called for a speech from former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani. On Wednesday, Palin was to speak, and McCain was to deliver his acceptance speech on Thursday.

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