Campaign Trail

Gustav a Nightmare for GOP Brand

Ghost of Katrina Haunts Convention

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It looks like those right-wing attempts to pray for rain to fall on Barack Obama's Invesco Field event have backfired. On the eve of the Republican National Convention, Hurricane Gustav is not only threatening New Orleans, it's playing havoc with GOP scheduling and acting as a reminder of Hurricane Katrina, often seen as George W. Bush's biggest domestic failure. For the GOP brand, the timing couldn't be worse.

And while the Democratic National Convention benefited from incessant TV coverage, networks are now scrambling to send their top talent down to New Orleans. Those who tuned in for Mr. Obama's acceptance speech saw tens of thousands of fans in a football stadium. Those tuning in for John McCain's may find a split screen featuring scenes of natural disaster and human suffering.

Obviously, the Republicans are sensitive to the subject. President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney are steering clear of the convention. Mr. Bush will be in Texas to oversee disaster response, but a number of tongues have been wagging that it's probably best for the party's image not to have him around.

Via a satellite feed, Mr. McCain told convention-goers, "We will not see the mistakes of Katrina repeated." Indeed, one of the few upsides for the party is that Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, has an opportunity to be seen as leading a successful response to the storm. (Hurricane Gustav also takes the pressure off the Republican Party to match the show -- and ratings -- put up by the Democrats.)

Pollster Frank Luntz, of Luntz, Maslansky Strategic Research, said things could go either way. "This is make or break for the Bush administration," said Mr. Luntz, a veteran GOP pollster. "It's their last chance to right the wrongs of Katrina."

He said a successful response could have an impact on Mr. McCain, "because he has an 'R' after his name."

And if things go wrong, it goes without saying the Republicans are going to take a hit.

Mr. Luntz also suggested that the Republicans could help by "demonstrating sensitivity" to the hurricane's impact during the convention.

The GOP is trying to adjust to the situation, cutting back on the festivities so as not to be seen as callously partying while the storm hits. At a 3 p.m. press conference Sunday, party leaders announced they'd go forward with the business side of the convention, doing only what is required by party rules while keeping an eye on the situation on the Gulf Coast. The party is also taking the opportunity to make a call to action and to set up fundraisers for hurricane victims.

Groups and publications in town for the convention are also trying to figure out what to do. The National Review was scheduled to hold a Mardi Gras-themed reception in Minneapolis featuring Mr. Jindal. But Mr. Jindal is staying in Louisiana, and the magazine has yet to decide whether to cancel the party completely or turn it into a fundraiser.

The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States and the sponsors of its Spirits of Minneapolis event have renamed the event as the Spirits of the Gulf Coast, shifting the focus to a fundraiser for the American Red Cross Hurricane Relief Fund.

Meanwhile, the Democratic National Committee has canceled a welcome reception it had scheduled as counter-programming event to the convention and called off a daily briefing scheduled for Monday.

Media heads south
Facing the prospect of another major hurricane hitting New Orleans or the Gulf Coast, CBS News anchor Katie Couric is departing the GOP convention in St. Paul while other TV and cable networks are moving program anchors and correspondents.

ABC is sending Charlie Gibson down to the Gulf Coast, keeping George Stephanopoulos in St. Paul. NBC is sending Brian Williams to the coast and keeping Tom Brokaw in town.

Fox News Channel, meanwhile, shifted anchor Shepard Smith from St. Paul to New Orleans, along with correspondent Steve Harrigan, daytime anchor Trace Gallagher and correspondent Jon Scott.

Jay Wallace, Fox's VP-news operations, said covering a hurricane at the same time as covering back-to-back political conventions is a challenge, but one that the network can certainly deal with.

"It's an obstacle, but something that we were built for anyway," he said.

CNN's Anderson Cooper, who had been scheduled to go to St. Paul, instead went to New Orleans on Friday.

CNN political director Sam Feist said that with the exception of Mr. Cooper, most of the CNN personnel assigned to the story came from outside the convention.

"We are adapting, not diverting resources from here," he said from St. Paul. "We are leveraging our resources from the bureaus."