Republicans brace for storms ahead

Subdued GOP convention opens as Gustav sputters up to Gulf coast; Palin's teenaged daughter pregnant.

McCain Palin 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
McCain Palin 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
The blowback from Hurricane Gustav, attacking America's Gulf Coast with 145-kilometer-per-hour winds, could be felt 2,000 kilometers northwest in this Midwestern city, which was set to kick off the Republican National Convention Monday night. At the direction of presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain, events were pared down to a bare minimum with the evening's political speeches, including those by Joe Lieberman and Norm Coleman, both Jewish senators, cancelled. US President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney announced they wouldn't be attending the convention. Meanwhile, parties were toned down or turned into fundraisers for those affected by the storm, which flooded cities and devastated fishing villages as it made landfall Monday morning. Instead, the convention was due to focus simply on its business functions of nominating the candidates, McCain and his vice presidential pick Sarah Palin. The storm also overshadowed news that Palin's 17-year-old unwed daughter was five months pregnant. She plans to marry her boyfriend and keep the child, according to Palin, the governor of Alaska. The campaign announced the news in part to defuse Internet rumors that Palin's own baby was actually her daughter's. Though some RNC events continued on track, attention was focused on the Gulf Coast, as McCain traveled to Mississippi to tour the emergency planning in place and helped convention delegates from affected areas return home. His wife and members of his family were expected to meet with delegates from Louisiana who have remained at the convention. "This is an overwhelming thing. Let's hope and pray that it's not going to be so severe," McCain told NBC television Monday. Acknowledging that he felt some frustration, he added: "This is just one of those moments in history where you have to put America first." Rabbi Ira Flax was trying to overcome the distance himself by keeping in touch with his small Jewish community in Biloxi, Mississippi by e-mail and phone calls. Flax, who is the only rabbi to give a benediction at the RNC convention, had already arrived in town as the storm began to wallop the coastal city. "People are loading up the cars and leaving. I know a number of people who are already far from the Gulf Coast," he said, saying that keeping in touch helped reduce the "angst" of not knowing where members of the community were amidst the chaos of the evacuation. He said the community was heeding government warnings to get to high ground because of the devastation it suffered during Hurricane Katrina three years ago, when many lost their homes and the synagogue was destroyed. Flax, who lives in Birmingham, Alabama and is only able to join the community every few weeks, first began to serve the 50-family Beth Israel congregation while an chaplain at nearby Keesler Air Force Base 20 years ago. Though he has moved around the world in his service, he has always stayed close to the community, and since retiring from the air force this summer intends to visit them regularly. Flax described the lessons of his upbringing in New York as convincing him to spend his life in the US Air Force. "Being a powerless people coming out of the ashes of the WWII, it's always been important that tyranny has to be confronted and stopped," the 47-year-old self-described "traditional" rabbi said. "The blessings that America has bestowed upon the Jewish people led me to want to serve and be part of the US military - especially the air force, because I've always liked airplanes." He said those beliefs, and the importance of national security, led him to back the Republican Party and McCain, starting with his first presidential run in 2000. He praised the Arizona senator for his actions during the convention toward his own community. "The leadership here, starting with Senator McCain on down, has really made the focus of the convention at this point to be concerned with what's happening on the Gulf Coast," he said. "It speaks to the leadership and the vision that the party has." And he said it's a vision his congregation appreciates, according to the e-mails he's received. "There's a real sense of gratitude and comfort that the Republican Party understands their plight." The Associated Press contributed to this report.