Buzz Kill

Hurricane Gustav is more than 1,000 miles from St. Paul, but its impact on the Republican Convention has already been substantial: canceled speeches, parties (they’re now charity fundraisers), and appearances. Equally flustered are mischief-making Democrats in St. Paul.

The Dems had planned a whole week of counterprogramming right across the street from the Xcel Center in St. Paul. They plastered billboards across the city featuring the famous McCain-Bush hug . Their war room, the “More of the Same Media Center,” was going to hold daily briefings for reporters (“with breakfast!”). They were even passing out flash drives with up-to-the-minute agitprop, which they called “St. Paul Survival Kits.”

Needless to say, survival kits aren’t quite as funny now.

Even before the Republicans decided to cancel all of Monday’s events save the most technical proceedings, the Democrats started dismantling. Sunday’s afternoon reception was canceled, as was Monday’s morning briefing. The MOTSMC is in hibernation until further notice. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the families in the region,” wrote DNC spokesman Damien LaVera in a statement.

If Republicans are in a tough spot, then Democrats’ position is even more difficult. The GOP doesn’t want to look insensitive by ignoring the hurricane, nor does it want to appear to be exploiting a tragedy. The Dems, meanwhile, don’t want to be seen as accusing the Republicans of exploiting a tragedy for political purposes—because that’s exploitation, too. In other words, if the Democrats attack, neither party comes out looking good. It’s kamikaze or nothing.

So instead, it’s become a contest to do the most good. Republicans are urging RNC party-throwers to collect money for charity. Obama has promised to use his list of millions to mobilize donors and volunteers. He also declined to hit McCain for his intended visit to New Orleans. “I think for John to want to find out what’s going on is fine,” he said. If only there had been a presidential race going on in August 2005.

Of course, peace can’t reign forever. McCain campaign manager Rick Davis emphasized that as of now, they’re canceling events only through 5:30 p.m. Monday. The Dems have likewise kept their options open past Monday morning. But it’s up to the Republicans to make the first slip. Today’s press conference was a masterwork in tact—McCain made a passionate appeal, while Davis exuded calm. But the Democrats are no doubt operating with a hair trigger. The first whiff of exploitation or insensitivity or managerial incompetence, and the snipers across the street will snap back into action.

Then again, if the Republicans manage to turn this from a distraction into a redemption story, the Democrats may need all the survival kits they can get.