ST. PAUL, MN -- Because of Hurricane Gustav and the rescue and responder efforts they have publicly committed themselves to, the Republicans gathered in Minnesota for their national nominating convention have stressed what everybody from ticket-leader John McCain on down has called "taking off the Republican hat" and "putting on the American hat."
McCain's statements, of course, were issued from spots in the danger zone, where he, along with his vice-presidential choice, Alaska governor Sarah Palin, went as soon as the emergency began to develop. And, as it happens, all of the governors of the states under siege by Gustav are Republicans who, but for the perils confronting their areas, would be in Minnesota themselves.
All of them, however, were down home on Monday, conspicuously - even ostentatiously - doing their jobs. And all of them save for Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal -- who was said to be (and probably was) too busy - took the time out to address the convention via video messages during the first actual delegate session at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.
Governors Rick Perry of Texas, Bob Riley of Alabama, Haley Barbour of Mississippi, and Charlie Crist of Florida all reinforced the sense of non-partisan mission by what they said and by the incidentals of how they said it. Perry did his stand-up while members of a task force team were visibly evacuating people from an aircraft behind him. Barbour wore a shirt emblazoned with the initials M.E.M.A. (for Mississippi Emergency Management Agency) and Crist posed outside with strong winds swaying the palm rees around him.
And when First Lady Laura Bush and Cindy McCain made what amounted to onstage cameos to close out the brief afternoon session (Monday's night session, normally reserved for keynote messages, had been canceled), they, too, kept to the non-partisan theme, confining themselves to gracious amenities.
None of these good deeds or fine intentions managed to completely put aside the Republicans' ongoing combat with the opposition party, however.
Nor, partisan politics being what it is, should they. There were clear signs all over that the delegates and attendees to this convention had rancor and contempt to spare for Democrats and other ideological opponents and were just biding their time before giving it full vent.
Robin Smith, the chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party, opened the first formal delegation breakfast Monday with an admonishment to the delegates and alternates and other Tennesseans that they give a cold shoulder to members of an anti-war, anti-administration veterans group which had occupied several rooms in the same hotel, the Ramada Mall of America, as the delegation.
"Ignore them," she said, advising the faithful not even to look at the literature left around the hotel by the vets' group. One GOP insider privy to some maneuvering that had gone on behind the scenes passed the word that Action Had Been Taken. "You notice that most of them [the vets] aren't here any longer," he said, smiling in serious and secret satisfaction. "You got the hotel to turn them out?" he was asked. The only response was a deepening of the smile.
Although stragglers to the breakfast meeting had missed it, Smith claimed also to have run off would-be attendees from the Daily Kos blog, that online lynchpin of left-of-center sentiment.
The sense of being under siege was accentuated later when, as a chartered bus transported members of the Tennessee and Alaska delegations to the Xcel Center, a uniformed St. Paul policeman named Mike informed riders that there was potential trouble in the streets and that, if it developed, he would, in effect, take over command of the vehicle.
Mike's wife, also a St. Paul police officer, had been called up on her day off for special duty on those selfsame streets, and she had passed on some alarming intelligence about demonstrators who might be encountered on the way to the arena. "They've got weapons and..." pause "...bags of feces," Mike announced.
That sobering news took a few seconds sinking in.
"Damn Democrats!" someone said finally.
"Tell me about it!" Mike said.
Still later, a group of Memphis delegates, who had waited in vain for some promised box lunches at the Xcel Center, went foraging in search of food. Although signs had been posted indicating that a buffet site was nearby, none could be found - despite some determined searching of the bowels of the place. Finally, the Memphians arrived at a stand that sold hamburgers, fish'n chips, and the like but after they'd waited out a lengthy line, they could find no place to sit down with their fast-food booty.
Ultimately, they would group around a tall-boy trash can, one that had a flat top and levered sides through which refuse could be dumped. They used the lid for an ad hoc tabletop and stood around the receptacle munching. A passerby came along, looked at the group and shook his head sympathetically.
"The accommodations in this place were set up by Democrats!" he declared.
That particular j'accuse might not have made sense, but it plainly did the man good to say it, and the exasperated GOP delegates he said it to just as obviously enjoyed hearing it.
Politics, like war, requires an enemy, and, for all the high-minded testimony from the dais on the convention's first day, it was a good bet that some good old catharctic mud-slinging was just around the corner.