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McCain shuts down Party convention

John McCain in effect froze the Republican Party convention in St Paul, Minnesota yesterday, telling Americans that it was time to forswear politics as usual as Hurricane Gustav bore down on the Gulf Coast.

The decision left thousands of delegates and reporters in limbo in Minnesota and perhaps millions of balloons inflated for nothing. And instead of reclaiming the initiative from the Democrats and Barack Obama, the Republicans were facing a perfect storm of their own, brought on by memories of Katrina.

Speaking via satellite from St Louis, Missouri, Mr McCain declared all usual party razzmatazz out of bounds and said it was time to "take off our Republican hats and put on our American hats".

The Bush administration is still haunted by the incompetent response to the 2005 disaster. Even before last night's announ-cement, George Bush and his Vice-President, Dick Cheney, had cancelled their plans to travel to St Paul and address delegates.

It was unclear last night how much of the party's convention plan will be salvaged beyond today. Barring an unexpected change of course or weakening of Gustav, it seemed unlikely that much convention business would occur tomorrow either.

If Gustav indeed becomes a natural disaster on the scale of Katrina, the convention in St Paul may end up doing very little beyond conducting the official business of conferring the nomination on Mr McCain. Rick Davies, a top political aide, said that the convention represents for Mr McCain "the culmination of his political career," and that he wants to be in St Paul, he "won't do anything inappropriate".

Three years ago, Mr Bush was holiday when he made his ill-judged remark that New Orleans had "dodged the bullet". Two days later he made it to the city, but it was a only a flyover, and the photo of him staring out the window of Air Force One unintentionally became a symbol of his administration's botched response. For many Americans, it crystallised the image of a president detached from the tragedy below.

The last thing the Republicans need now is a deluge of bad memories of their president's incompetent response to Katrina. Mr McCain and his presidential running mate Sarah Palin, the Governor of Alaska, were on the ground in Jackson, Mississippi, yesterday conveying a can-do approach to the gathering storm. His Democratic rival, Barack Obama, said that he might visit storm-damaged areas once "things have settled down".

As the prospective commander-in-chief, Mr McCain must now walk a fine line between showcasing his leadership in a time of crisis, without looking as if he is openly embracing the disaster. Instead of celebrating the Republican ticket as planned, officials are discussing ideas for a major relief effort, possibly a telethon to raise funds for those hit by Gustav 1,100 miles away.

With Democrats claiming a McCain presidency would be like a third George Bush term, the Republican nominee is trying to keep his distance. Mr McCain has called the administration's response to Katrina "disgraceful".

It is a verdict shared by even one-time Bush allies, such as the former White House press secretary Scott McClellan. "One of the worst disasters in our nation's history became one of the biggest disasters in Bush's presidency, Katrina and the botched federal response to it would largely come to define Bush's second term," he wrote in his tell-all memoir this year.

The fateful turn that the Bush presidency took during Katrina left it mired in perceptions of incompetence. Patriotic voters who were prepared to forgive him for miscalculations in Iraq were less forgiving over Katrina and Mr Bush's approval ratings were never to recover.