Surprise pregnancy has Republicans off balance

McCain, delegates offer support after revelation about Gov. Palin's daughter

ST. PAUL—It was not, in Weather Channel terms, a Category 5. But the Republican National Convention made landfall in the Twin Cities on Monday, its attention split between a hurricane smashing the Gulf Coast and a political storm over the vice presidential nominee's grandchild-to-be.

Concerns over Hurricane Gustav cut the convention program short, even as television screens throughout the Xcel Energy Center showed the storm's damage did not appear as severe as Hurricane Katrina three years before. Meanwhile, word spread quickly through the hall that the 17-year-old daughter of Sen. John McCain's running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, is pregnant and plans to marry the father.

Convention delegates and conservative religious leaders praised Bristol Palin for keeping her child and her parents for supporting her. McCain aides acted quickly to contain any political damage, warning that reporters would face a backlash if they pried too deeply into the Palins' personal lives.

"It's a private family matter. Life happens in families," Steve Schmidt, McCain's top strategist, told reporters. "If people try to politicize this, the American people will be appalled by it."

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  It was a lot of drama for a day with little action onstage. In their brief afternoon session, Republicans appointed committees, approved a platform—which supports abstinence education in schools—and watched video messages from Gulf state governors. President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney canceled evening speeches, apparently ensuring that the incumbent president would not appear at his party convention for the first time since Lyndon Johnson skipped the Democratic gathering in 1968.

"Like all of you, George and I were planning to come to this convention and have a very good time," said First Lady Laura Bush, who joined McCain's wife, Cindy, in urging delegates to fund hurricane relief. But, she added, "As you all know, events in the Gulf Coast region have changed our plans."

Hours after the delegates left for the day, it still was unclear what Tuesday's convention schedule would look like. It was originally planned to include speeches from GOP luminaries including former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, and ex-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

Rumors and retorts

Monday's shortened program stemmed from painful memories of the botched government response to Katrina and the criticism of the Bush administration it provoked. But it was overshadowed by Sarah and Todd Palin's announcement that their daughter Bristol "came to us with news that as parents we knew would make her grow up faster than we had ever planned."

Schmidt told reporters that the campaign issued the statement on Bristol Palin's pregnancy to rebut Internet rumors that the governor's 4-month-old baby was, in fact, Bristol's child.

Speaking to reporters in Michigan, Democratic nominee Barack Obama reiterated earlier statements that candidates' children should be off-limits. Obama pointed out that his mother, a college student who married a student from Kenya, was 18 when he was born. "This shouldn't be part of our politics," Obama said. "It has no relevance to Gov. Palin's performance as a governor or her potential performance as a vice president."

Palin addressed teen pregnancy prevention in her 2006 run for governor, indicating on a questionnaire that she favored abstinence-until-marriage education over explicit sex education programs, school-based clinics and condom distribution in schools. The high school that Bristol Palin attended for part of last year, Wasilla High School, teaches abstinence in health class, its principal said.

Voters nationally are just getting to know Palin, 44, and the revelation Monday led some Republican strategists, speaking anonymously, to question whether she would survive on the ticket. With hundreds of reporters descending on Alaska to comb through Palin's background, a McCain aide said the campaign had flown a team of lawyers and other campaign aides to the state.

"The choice of Palin is either brilliant or a colossal screw-up on the part of John McCain," said independent political analyst Charlie Cook. "Are people going to say, 'Gee, she's a regular person coping with problems just like us?' Or are people going to say, 'How can she possibly run for vice president with everything going on her life?' "

Citing a legislative investigation into Palin's firing of the state public safety commissioner—a matter involving a family dispute—Cook said, "She can't take on a whole lot more water."

Judging a candidate

But Republicans here in St. Paul, and voters interviewed in the nearby Mall of America, offered overwhelming support for Palin. "You can't judge the parent by the actions of a child," said Rosalie Ninas, 78, who spent Labor Day at the mall with her husband. "And you certainly shouldn't judge your candidates that way."

At the Xcel Center, party officials gaveled the convention to order in and immediately asked delegates to donate money via text message to Gustav relief efforts. They closed shop early a few hours later.

Delegates didn't seem to mind. French Hill, a banker from Little Rock, Ark., raised more than $500 for hurricane relief in 90 minutes of phoning friends and business contacts on Monday. "That experience," he said, "has really made my convention experience more rewarding."

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