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Gulf Coast Delegates Ready to Work

Gulf Coast delegates say they favor the Republican National Convention resuming political normalcy when Day Two of the event is gaveled to order this afternoon — assuming that Hurricane Gustav is not catastrophic.

Delegates from Louisiana — which has borne the brunt of the storm — and Texas said they traveled to Minnesota this week to nominate Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin for president and vice president, and they want their ticket to benefit from the political shot in the arm that often accompanies the four-day presidential nominating convention.

There was general agreement that McCain made the right call in canceling the political portion of Monday’s convention program. Louisiana delegates recommended that convention organizers pursue a middle ground that allows for politics and making the case for McCain and against the Democratic White House ticket, but tempers the messaging by acknowledging the difficult circumstances of many Gulf Coast residents.

“It will still make political points. I think that’s fair. That’s the business of a convention, to show the differences between one candidate and another,” ex-Rep. and former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer (R) said on Monday following the Pelican State delegation breakfast. “But the tone should be more respectful.”

The Louisiana delegation breakfast featured an appearance by McCain’s wife, Cindy, and a surprise appearance by first lady Laura Bush.

The Republican National Committee and the McCain/Palin campaign plan to decide today their approach to this evening’s convention program.

While a handful of Louisiana delegates left Minnesota over the weekend to return home, 39 of the state’s original 47 delegates remain in Minneapolis-St. Paul this week. Alternates are replacing the delegates who left, and state party officials plan to field a full delegation on the convention floor later this week.

For the majority of Louisiana delegates who stayed, the consensus seemed to be a mixture of acceptance that they couldn’t control Mother Nature and enthusiasm for the job they came to the convention to do.

“I can’t do anything back there but pray,” said Bob Ellis, a lawyer from New Orleans who spent five months living on a cruise ship after Hurricane Katrina because he couldn’t return to his home. “I’m here as a delegate. I don’t know what else to do but be here and work for the party. … It takes my mind off of what’s going on back home.”

Members of the Texas delegation who live near the Gulf Coast expressed similar sentiments.

J. Shane Howard, 37, a delegate who is also Jefferson County GOP chairman, praised the decision to eliminate the Monday night session of convention stump speeches as a wise political move, noting that the news coverage of Hurricane Gustav would have filled the airwaves in any event and prevented any attention from being focused on McCain and his message. Howard lives in Beaumont, near the Texas coast, and his family evacuated as a precaution for Gustav.

“There’s not anything we can do from here except do our job and communicate to the American people that there is some leadership that we need to have in place,” he said. “Who wants to have a big party in the middle of a horrible, horrible storm where people are hurt — or died. But absent that happening, we need to get back to business.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) addressed Howard and the rest of his home-state delegates Monday morning before cutting his convention short to head back to Texas to be available to his constituents affected by the storm.

Cornyn, who is expected to win re-election in November over state Rep. Rick Noriega (D), conceded that a curtailed Republican convention and the loss of television coverage and news focus could put the GOP presidential ticket at a competitive disadvantage with its Democratic counterpart, Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) and Sen. Joseph Biden (Del.).

But Cornyn said that was doubtful.

“Maybe we lose a little something by not being in the spotlight for one night. But in the end, I don’t think it makes a lot of difference,” Cornyn told reporters. “You could look at it as bad luck. In another sense, I think this will demonstrate the compassion of Republicans and, I think, the focus on public safety and security.”

Although less affected by Hurricane Gustav, the Florida delegation took a different tack, canceling most of its events for the week, including its marquee Thursday night party.

The funds that were to be used to underwrite that event instead will be donated to charity. Monday’s delegation meeting, originally scheduled to be the political pep rally that usually characterizes such morning events, was transformed late Sunday evening into a prayer breakfast.

Florida GOP Chairman Jim Greer said he was just following the lead of McCain, whose campaign recently asked Twin Cities party organizers to avoid high-profile partying this week. McCain/Palin campaign manager Rick Davis said Sunday that the Arizona Senator wasn’t recommending the canceling of any parties but wanted organizers to keep hurricane victims in mind and try to use their events to aid them and shed light on their condition.

“Sen. McCain was right in what he conveyed to the delegations, which was to tone everything down and let’s just do the party business that we need to do,” Greer said. “We’ve canceled some events in Florida that regardless of what happens in those Southern states, we’re not going to reinstitute.”

Matthew Murray contributed to this report.