GOP convention makes way for Gustav

John McCain may delay acceptance speech

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- As Hurricane Gustav bore down on the Gulf Coast, the Republican National Convention was severely curtailed as TV journalists rushed to the hurricane zone.

All three of the major network anchors left St. Paul to travel in and around New Orleans for Sunday night's broadcasts. They, along with key cable news correspondents and anchors, are positioned in the storm zone ahead of Gustav's arrival Monday.

Earlier in the day, Republicans announced that it would open the convention on Monday afternoon but only for about two hours for procedural issues required by federal law. The rest of Monday night's program, including speeches by President Bush and Vice President Cheney, have been postponed.

"This is a time when we have to do away with our party politics and we have to act as Americans," GOP presidential candidate John McCain said Sunday afternoon at a news conference from a St. Louis campaign stop.

RNC and McCain campaign officials were tracking the storm and said it would make decisions day-by-day about the four-night party convention.

Monday's primetime hour reserved by the broadcast networks -- as well as the cable news schedule -- have already been planned for hurricane coverage.

It appears as though Tuesday's convention schedule would be given over to hurricane relief, perhaps a telethon, although there hasn't been any definitive word. Wednesday and Thursday night's program, which include previously scheduled speeches from Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and McCain, are still up in the air.

"I don't know if it's a requirement of the senator to be here but he would like to be here," McCain campaign manager Rick Davis said. "But we're not going to do anything that will be deemed inappropriate."

Meanwhile, with the elaborate coverage plans in shambles and the most compelling story 1,000 miles to the south, networks waited with the RNC and rest of the country. No one could say what would happen to the RNC coverage, although most of the networks' teams remained in place.

"This is a moving target," ABC News senior vp Kate O'Brian said Sunday afternoon. "I can't predict the weather. No one knows what will happen."

O'Brien was echoed by many in the news business, who said that the level of coverage of the RNC was going to depend a lot on the RNC. And the RNC's decisions were going to depend on what happened with Hurricane Gustav. NBC political director Chuck Todd said on Sunday afternoon that NBC and MSNBC coverage decisions would all depend on the RNC.

"The track (of the hurricane) right now is the primary story, where it hits and what type of damage it does," said Jay Wallace, Fox News Channel vp news editorial product. "Throughout this week, the page-two stories are going to be how are the Republicans reacting (to the storm)."

Beyond the convention, the GOP has put out word to the planners and others with events to be respectful of the impending devastation and do what they could to help those affected. Already that has had an impact.

The Lifetime Networks/Rock the Vote late-night party would go on as scheduled Monday night but organizers said that it would become a benefit for the American Red Cross Hurricane Relief Fund.

"Most of tomorrow we will have this hurricane striking land," said CNN Washington bureau chief David Bohrman. "I'm not sure that very much of this convention tomorrow is going to make it on television. We need to see."

It seemed likely that most of the convention's tone would be somber and business-oriented, with little of the partisan speeches that usually mark political conventions.

CNN's David Bohrman said he believes it's possible that the partisan work of the convention could happen at some other point.

"They may find an efficient, business-like way to nominate Sen. McCain and his vice presidential running mate Sarah Palin and then figure out a way to introduce them to the country in a different setting in a week or two," Bohrman said.

Networks were beginning to have the "what-if" discussions to decide what they would do if the convention was halted completely. No one would say whether the hours of primetime coverage would somehow be "made up" to the Republicans, given the fact that the Democrats dominated nearly a week of the news cycle last week in Denver.

"We will have those discussions but we haven't had them yet," one
network executive said Sunday night. "Right now, we're taking the lead from the RNC and the McCain campaign."

NBC News President Steve Capus told The Hollywood Reporter early Sunday afternoon that the network was fortunate to have two anchors, Brian Williams who rushed to New Orleans to cover the hurricane while Tom Brokaw stayed in St. Paul for the RNC.

"We will be in a position to offer complete and respectful coverage of the RNC," Capus said. "The convention organizers and party officials are, I believe, being incredibly sensitive to the headlines coming out of the Gulf region."