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Convention hears from wives, sits out storm

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Republican convention delegates rallied Monday around presumptive vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin as they made the first day of their gathering a subdued show of sympathy for Hurricane Gustav's victims.

First lady Laura Bush and Cindy McCain, the wife of the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, addressed the convention, staying away from partisan politics.

"As we gather in Minnesota, a great storm afflicts our country," Cindy McCain said. "And when one of us is threatened, we are all threatened. As Americans, we all rise to the challenge."

Outside the convention hall, an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 antiwar protesters marched down St. Paul's streets, sometimes smashing windows, blocking roads and tossing bottles. Police used pepper spray to subdue them. About 250 arrests were made.

Inside the Xcel Energy Center, the site of the Republican gathering, delegates were eager to promote political unity. It was nearly impossible to find a delegate or Republican official who thought that news about Palin's 17-year-old unmarried daughter's pregnancy had hurt the presidential ticket, and Laura Bush drew loud cheers when she mentioned the Alaska governor's name.

"It's a personal, family matter," said Auburn, Calif., delegate Ann Whitley. "I don't believe it's a controversy," said San Luis Obispo County assessor Tom Bordonaro, who added, "It's hard for me to believe Senator McCain didn't know about this."

McCain's staff said that he'd known about the pregnancy before he announced Palin as his choice for vice president Friday, and had judged it irrelevant.

President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney had been scheduled to address the convention Monday night, but the program was canceled Sunday because of Gustav.

The last-minute additions of Laura Bush and Cindy McCain, however, were a signal Monday that the convention could be inching back to its original purpose: to promote the Republican ticket.

McCain campaign manager Rick Davis refused to discuss his boss's process for vetting Palin, but was more upbeat about plans for getting the convention back on track Tuesday, saying he was "more optimistic than we were a day ago."

McCain is scheduled to make his acceptance speech Thursday, and Davis said "there's no contingency planning at this point that would have him outside the city" to make that address.

Resuming the convention's regular business Tuesday would give the Republican Party the best of both political worlds: It would have shown the nation that it was compassionate on Monday, and avoided having the unpopular Bush make a prime-time appearance to put his stamp on the convention's start. Then the party would be free to spend the rest of the week trying to demonize Democratic opponent Barack Obama.

But Monday still wasn't a day for partisan politics. Party Chairman Mike Duncan of Inez, Ky., opened the session by asking delegates to make donations to the Red Cross by hitting a text message code. Web sites for state relief funds ringed the hall.

Later, Laura Bush introduced a video featuring Gulf of Mexico state governors thanking the Republican delegates for their hurricane-relief efforts.

"The effect of Hurricane Gustav is just now being measured," she said. "When such events occur, we are reminded that first we are all Americans, and that our shared American ideals will always transcend political parties and partisanship."

Republicans were trying hard to erase the memory of the Bush administration's handling of Hurricane Katrina's aftermath. The response to the 2005 storm sent Bush's popularity plunging to levels he's never been able to raise.

Laura Bush conceded Monday that "there were lots of mistakes, and they were on every level" during Katrina.

She told CBS News in an interview that "they were local, they were statewide and there were certainly federal mistakes, but we learned from those." She wouldn't detail the mistakes.

Sen. Mitch McConnell visited hurricane evacuees in Louisville Monday and was briefed by emergency officials. A spokesman for the senator said that McConnell is expected to arrive at the convention Tuesday to serve as temporary chairman.

McConnell had been scheduled to speak the opening night of the convention. It was not clear Monday evening whether his speech would be rescheduled.

While much of the convention was on hold, it still carried on with the business of adopting rules and adopting the party platform, Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson said in a phone interview.

Grayson anticipated that the convention will begin to resemble some sense of normalcy on Tuesday. Nonetheless, "I think you'll see a different tone, certainly in the beginning," Grayson said.

McCain's aides and GOP leaders will assess the storm damage early Tuesday before deciding the day's schedule.

Tuesday night's script calls for speeches from three of McCain's primary rivals, Rudy Giuliani, Mike Huckabee and Fred Thompson.