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GOP says distractions won't hurt them

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ST. PAUL - Republicans dealt with distractions as they began their national convention Monday, but said the event still will be a success.

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First came Hurricane Gustav, whose surge and winds were less than predicted, but forced convention officials to trim their plans.

Then, Sen. John McCain's running mate, Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska, released a statement saying her 17-year-old unwed daughter is pregnant.

Finally, protesters were smaller in numbers than predicted, but the Minnesota National Guard was called in to help police control them.

The convention likely will return to a more normal schedule today after only routine business and discussion about hurricane relief occurred Monday.

Republican officials said it appears that the traditional roll call of the states to nominate McCain and Palin will occur Wednesday night. Palin is expected to speak Wednesday night and McCain should appear in person Thursday night.

Nearly 2,500 delegates, backed up by nearly that many alternates, met for an hour in session Monday afternoon, then recessed an hour before first lady Laura Bush and McCain's wife, Cindy, took the podium to encourage them to donate to flood relief.

Bush, whose husband canceled a scheduled speech to oversee Gustav-fighting efforts, said Americans always come to the aid of those in need and "transcend political parties and partisanship."

McCain and his Democratic opponent, Barack Obama, separately encouraged Americans to donate to relief agencies such as the Red Cross.

Despite McCain's pleas to keep politics out of convention speeches Monday, Mrs. Bush could not resist. In introducing a video featuring Gulf Coast governors talking about the hurricane, she said: "They are all strong leaders. They were planning to be with us today. They also all happen to be Republicans."

Mrs. McCain urged delegates to help.

"Together we can accomplish so much to help those who have been affected," she said.

GOP Chairman Mike Duncan urged delegates to send text messages via their mobile telephones that would allow them to donate $5 to help hurricane victims.

Delegates said it was appropriate to think of the storm victims and tone down their convention.

"We need to put it in proper perspective," said Richard Koch of Jackson, Minn. "It focuses our energies appropriately."

The emphasis on help also is a Republican thing, he added. Republicans prefer to allow private organizations to help with relief, he said, more so than Democrats, who often rely on government.

Mike Charron, who now lives in Winona after representing eastern Twin Cities suburbs in the Minnesota House, was in the first wave of volunteers to help clean up after Hurricane Katrina three years ago and hates to miss helping out this time.

"My heart is ripped in half," he said. "We are talking about families who are losing everything."

A hurricane information center has been set up at St. Paul's Xcel Energy Center, where the convention is headquartered, and organizers of every convention-related event are being asked to contribute to hurricane relief. GOP leaders are not asking for events to be canceled.

Minneapolis-based Target Corporation is donating goods to be sent to hurricane victims, with FedEx donating space on an airplane to deliver the supplies. Delegates will be asked to help pack the relief supplies.

Delegates said they did not think Palin's revelation that her daughter is pregnant will affect voters. Many delegates said it just "humanizes" Palin because many families face similar circumstances.

Palin and her husband, Todd, surprised Republicans today by releasing a statement saying their daughter, Bristol, is pregnant.

"We have been blessed with five wonderful children who we love with all our heart and mean everything to us," the statement said. "Our beautiful daughter Bristol came to us with news that as parents we knew would make her grow up faster than we had ever planned. We're proud of Bristol's decision to have her baby and even prouder to become grandparents. As Bristol faces the responsibilities of adulthood, she knows she has our unconditional love and support.

"Bristol and the young man she will marry are going to realize very quickly the difficulties of raising a child, which is why they will have the love and support of our entire family. We ask the media to respect our daughter and Levi's privacy as has always been the tradition of children of candidates."

McCain's campaign told ABC News that the Arizona senator knew of the pregnancy before picking Palin as his running mate.

Minnesota Republican Chairman Ron Carey said the pregnancy will not hurt GOP chances.

"Whether you are Republican, Democrat or independent, we all face challenges," Carey said.

Carey said he did not think the news would affect the Minnesota delegation's support of Palin, but delegates had little time to digest the information Monday afternoon.

"It humanizes our ticket," added long-time Minnesota Republican leader Tony Sutton.

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Delegate Kurt Daudt of Zimmerman said Palin should do well in his 8th Congressional District, northeast and east-central Minnesota, because she is a snowmobiling National Rifle Association member. "That will definitely help."

Minnesota delegate and House minority leader Marty Seifert of Marshall said Democrats should not think of making the pregnancy an issue.

"If they try to turn a candidates' daughter into a political football," it is a big risk, he said.

"It's a situation that hundreds of thousands of people deal with," North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said, admitting he had heard little about the issue.

To know if it will hurt the McCain-Palin ticket, he added: "It's kind of soon" to know that.

Like the convention's scaled-back activity, an anti-war protest organizers said would yield 50,000 participants drew far fewer.

If delegates knew little of the pregnancy issue, they new less about protesters outside the convention.

One law enforcement estimate put the number of people marching from the Minnesota Capitol to near the Xcel Energy Center at 8,000 to 10,000. Protest organizers said their march drew three times that.

Protesters marching along a permitted and designated route were met by police officers on bicycles and on horses while others were wearing riot gear and blocking protesters from taking alternate routes.

At least 163 arrests were made related to vandalism and at least one confrontation between police and a group of protesters -- dressed in dark colors and wearing eye protection and face masks -- that was not part of the permitted march.

State Capitol reporter Scott Wente contributed to this story.

State Capitol reporters are blogging from the Republican National Convention at www.areavoices.com/CapitolChat.

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Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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