Stormy Weather Might Just Help This GOP Ticket

So as Hurricane Gustav all but bounced Day One of the planned four-day McCainfest '08 from the national airwaves, two questions remain here at the Media Circus:

Will Gustav and the storms up next — Hanna and Ike — upstage the rest of the Republican convention too? And if so, from an image standpoint, would that be such a bad thing for the GOP?

On Monday, the Republicans ditched their first full night of partying in St. Paul in favor of a stripped-down appeal for aid for the Gulf Coast. And the big three networks turned instead to prime-time news specials on the storm, with only fleeting political segments. The big anchors — ABC's Charlie Gibson, CBS' Katie Couric and NBC's Brian Williams — were down in Louisiana instead of Minnesota.

Yet for the moment, the networks aren't hearing any complaints from the Republicans.

"They fully understand that it is our obligation to cover the news, and the news is elsewhere," said Christopher Isham, the Washington bureau chief for CBS News. "There's nothing going on here" in St. Paul — where 15,000 journalists are credentialed to cover the convention.

But Isham said that if Gustav or other storms knock Tuesday night or more of the planned convention coverage off the air, McCain campaign officials have signaled they will press for the broadcast networks to devote a second hour on Thursday. "In that case, we'd have to take that seriously," Isham said.

The bad news for McCain is that the feared menace of Gustav forced him to lose a day in which he could get across his message, often without filter, to the American people. President Bush and Vice President Cheney, who could have tossed rhetorical red meat to the party faithful, were banished from the stage in Minnesota.

Instead, Bush toured emergency centers and met with senior emergency response officials on Monday with cameras in tow, and Cheney was privately whisked to an undisclosed location by black-clad ninja Wyoming fly-fishermen. Seriously, did anybody see Cheney? Is he now actually invisible, like Jessica Alba in The Fantastic Four, but without the improbably long blond tresses?

The good news for McCain, of course, is that the feared menace of Gustav banished President Bush and Vice President Cheney from national television at a time their popularity ratings are probably as low as those for Christie Brinkley's philandering ex-husband. McCain's show of compassion for New Orleans, in particular, was meant to be a contrast to the perceived indifference of the Bush administration during Hurricane Katrina three years ago.

So you saw whipsaw coverage on TV. On CNN, you saw CNN's John King, the Amazing Electoral Telestrator, inside the arena in St. Paul half-filled with subdued delegates, using Google Earth to give some sense of geography and challenge of the New Orleans levee system.

His colleague, Wolf Blitzer, stopped questioning a pundit to talk by phone with a Louisiana parish president (basically, a county chief executive) who was desperate to get word out that a levee in his parish was about to fail.

And then Blitzer cut off that interview to carry first lady Laura Bush's brief address to delegates in which she and Cindy McCain appealed for donations to help those affected on the Gulf Coast — such as the people who live in the afore-mentioned imperiled parish.

The really bad news for McCain is that since there was little political pomp and spectacle to capture on TV, about the only political news getting any attention at the moment is the fact that McCain's new "hunter mom" pro-life governor running mate, Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska, is about to become a grandmother at 44.

The governor says her daughter intends to marry the baby's father. CNN covered the development repeatedly. Online, The New York Times initially carried this headline: "Palin's Teen Daughter Is Pregnant; New G.O.P. Tumult."

These things do happen. As it happens, the Times story conveyed little or nothing to justify the idea of tumult within the GOP ranks. Most Republicans interviewed seemed fairly supportive.

Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama told the press to "back off" from the story, declaring family off-limits.

The McCain camp's revelation was triggered not by the uniformly hated mainstream media — though some reporters are now talking to the good people of Wasilla, Alaska — but by posters on the liberal Web site the Daily Kos speculating about the parentage of the governor's youngest child, who is just months old.

The media also covered this development: Palin also just hired a lawyer to represent her during investigations of whether there was an abuse of power when her aides pressured the head of the state police to run her former brother-in-law off the force.

The hiring itself was of little consequence, but it served to remind the press corps of the scandal. Both mini-bombshells were released by the McCain campaign on a day most eyes were on the storm.

While CNN was mentioning the daughter's pregnancy several times an hour, MSNBC President Phil Griffin said he didn't want his channel to focus on it all that much. But he says Palin will be a big story, as she's largely unknown to most Americans.

"Everything's going to be looked at," Griffin said Monday evening. "There's a lot to learn about her — everything from her voting record to her core beliefs to what she did as a governor. I think there's going to be great interest."

ABC News and NBC News are suggesting that a reverse process has occurred: first the candidate announced his running mate, and only now are party operatives really checking her record.

And there's the rub. The McCain camp did a masterful job of playing a weak hand over the past week. It used an Obama strength — his popularity — against him by mocking his acceptance speech at a packed outdoor stadium in Denver. After watching the address on TV, it became clear that McCain would have leaped at the chance to do it himself — if only he could match it.

McCain's pick of Palin and the interruption of the hurricane effectively combined to contain any big bump Obama might have received from his convention last week. But now McCain has to figure out a way to generate a bit of his own televised magic. And there are 15,000 journalists in St. Paul ready to pounce.

"This is complicated stuff. We're going day by day," MSNBC's Griffin said. "Look, as of right now, we should be in a window where we get to cover all the big speeches at all the big events (at the convention). We're over all of the storms."

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