ST. PAUL, Minn. - Republicans got back to the business of politics last night, shuffling their president out of prime time and beginning the condensed mission of contrasting John McCain with his Democratic opponent.
Seeking to wrest control of their convention from Hurricane Gustav, the GOP focused on "country first," a theme that ran from the opening prayer to the closing speech and was written on screens across the Xcel Energy Center. The program focused on reintroducing voters to the presumptive Republican nominee, his family, his military and public service, and his time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.
Former senator and GOP presidential candidate Fred Thompson cast McCain as a rebel and a reformer, and swiped at Democratic nominee Barack Obama's patriotism.
"The Democrats present a history-making nominee for president," Thompson said. "History-making in that he is the most liberal, most inexperienced nominee to ever run for president."
The nation, Thompson added a moment later, "needs a president who understands the nature of the world we live in. A president who feels no need to apologize for the United States of America."
The Republican gathering also featured Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, the Democrat-turned-independent who was the 2000 Democratic vice presidential nominee. "I'm here to support John McCain because country matters more than party," said Lieberman, who gave the night's featured prime-time address.
"Both presidential candidates this year talk about changing the culture of Washington, about breaking through the partisan gridlock and special interests that are poisoning our politics," Lieberman added. "But only one of them has actually done it. ... Senator Obama is a gifted and eloquent young man who can do great things for our country in the years ahead. But eloquence is no substitute for a record, not in these tough times."
The evening's schedule came together on the fly after delegates largely stood down on Monday while Hurricane Gustav blew ashore in Louisiana, but the storm caused far less damage than had been feared.
"Tonight is a start," said Fred Davis, who along with his partner, Bill Kenyon, is creating McCain's television commercials and videos being shown at the convention.
"I'm a planner," Davis added. "For a planner, this is painful. You wake up in the morning and wonder what you're going to do during the day."
McCain aides and other Republicans worried yesterday that the Gustav-shortened convention schedule had cost them valuable time to accomplish the two missions of modern political conventions: sketching the biography and vision of the nominee, and attacking his opponent.
Democrats drew record television audiences for their convention last week. The Nielsen ratings service counted nearly 50 million combined viewers for the first two nights of the Democratic Convention in Denver. It did not provide estimates for the Republicans' opening night, because so much news coverage was focused on the Gulf Coast.
Most prominent television news personalities were in the Gulf and only returned yesterday for the convention.
"Obviously we lost a lot of opportunities to communicate some messages," McCain campaign manager Rick Davis said yesterday. In a plea for airtime, he added later, "I would encourage everyone to look at our schedule with the sensitivity of having lost our prime-time coverage for Monday night."
But the hurricane also gave the GOP a chance to underscore McCain's "country first" message.
By truncating the opening night festivities, "they did a fine thing," said Rep. Mary Fallin of Oklahoma. "I don't think we lost anything."
Some Republicans were less-than-disappointed to lose prime-time coverage of Bush, whose approval ratings hover around 30 percent, and whom Democrats worked steadily at their Denver convention to link to McCain.
Yesterday, the president spoke for a little less than eight minutes, about half the length of his intended speech on Monday, in a video speech that began several minutes before broadcast networks started their prime-time coverage. At several points, delegates cheered him enthusiastically.
Bush called McCain, his one-time rival, an independent thinker whose life "is a story of service above self" and who has the "courage and vision we need in our next commander in chief."
"We live in a dangerous world," Bush said, echoing the contrasts he made with Democrat John Kerry in the 2004 presidential race. "And we need a president who understands the lessons of Sept. 11, 2001: That to protect America, we must stay on the offense, stop attacks before they happen and not wait to be hit again."
In an apparent attempt to rebut Democrats' attacks that McCain is a Bush clone, the president said McCain is "not afraid to tell you when he disagrees. Believe me, I know."
Bush and other speakers also praised Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, McCain's running mate, even as Democrats continued to question her qualification and McCain's vetting of her. Thompson called Palin "a breath of fresh air" and cast her as a victim of unfair attacks.
"Let's be clear," he said. "The selection of Governor Palin has the other side and their friends in the media in a state of panic. She is a courageous, successful reformer, who is not afraid to take on the establishment. Sound like anyone else we know?"