ST. PAUL, Minn. – Republicans opened their scaled-down national convention Monday with calls for aid and compassion as Hurricane Gustav hit the Gulf Coast, but even before the gavel had come down to begin the proceedings they were met with another jarring distraction, as the party’s presumptive vice presidential nominee announced that her 17-year-old daughter is five months pregnant.
Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and her husband said their daughter plans to raise the baby and will marry the father.
“Our beautiful daughter Bristol came to us with news that as parents we knew would make her grow up faster than we had ever planned,” Palin said in a statement issued by the campaign of Sen. John McCain, who will accept the Republican nomination for president this week. “We’re proud of Bristol’s decision to have her baby and even prouder to become grandparents. As Bristol faces the responsibilities of adulthood, she knows she has our unconditional love and support.”
Coming on the heels of Gustav, which led Republicans to cancel most of their opening-day events, Palin’s revelation continued to reshape what Republicans had hoped would be a boisterous send-off for the McCain-Palin ticket and left some Republicans privately voicing concern that the campaign may have missed other potentially damaging background information about McCain’s little-known vice presidential pick. Palin arrived in St. Paul on Monday but had no public schedule.
But McCain aides pushed back hard Monday night against any suggestion they mishandled the selection process. “Nothing that has come out did not come out in the vet – she was fully vetted,” said a senior campaign adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
President Bush had been scheduled to speak Monday. But party leaders said he was overseeing the emergency response in Louisiana and the other Gulf of Mexico states. Four Gulf state governors spoke to the convention by video, assuring viewers they were at the ready.
First lady Laura Bush escorted McCain’s wife, Cindy, onto the stage as Texas delegates stood and waved their cowboy hats.
Bush stood behind a simple podium with a huge television screen showing an American flag. She pumped her fist as she spoke Palin’s name, and delegates vigorously applauded.
Cindy McCain quoted her husband, saying, “This is the time to take off our Republican hats and put on our American hats.” She urged people to donate to various relief funds, as did Laura Bush and other party leaders at the Xcel Energy Center.
Bush and McCain spoke for five minutes between them. Within 20 minutes of Laura Bush taking the stage, the opening day’s session came to a close.
The convention program for the rest of the week remained unsettled, with organizers saying that decisions about how to go forward are contingent on conditions in Louisiana and neighboring states. With initial indications that hurricane damage may not be as bad as first feared, McCain advisers appeared hopeful that their candidate would be at the Xcel Energy Center to accept his nomination Thursday night, but they were gauging the storm’s progress and planned no announcements until this morning. The White House, meanwhile, was holding out the possibility that Bush might address the convention by satellite video sometime this week.
Both McCain and Sen. Barack Obama, the Democratic nominee, moved to shift their approaches on the campaign trail as Gustav approached the coast. Since Palin was named McCain’s vice presidential pick , the running mates have steered clear of partisan rhetoric, instead stressing reform and trying to package themselves as outsiders.
Obama also was drawn into the discussion of Bristol Palin’s pregnancy, telling reporters to “back off” the family.
“I have said before and I will repeat again: I think people’s families are off-limits,” he said. “People’s children are especially off-limits. This shouldn’t be part of our politics. It has no relevance to Governor Palin’s performance as a governor or her potential performance as a vice president. So I would strongly urge people to back off these kinds of stories.
“You know, my mother had me when she was 18. How family deals with issues and teenage children, that shouldn’t be the topic of our politics. I hope that anybody who’s supported me understands that’s off-limits.”
McCain campaign officials said the Palin family’s statement was prompted in part by a spate of Internet rumors suggesting that Bristol Palin was actually the mother of Sarah Palin’s 4-month-old son, Trig. They denounced the rumors and went on the offensive Monday morning when the news of Bristol Palin’s pregnancy surfaced.
But McCain supporters are encouraged that leaders of the Christian right are rallying behind Palin and her family. “Fortunately, Bristol is following her mother and father’s example of choosing life in the midst of a difficult situation,” Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said in a statement. “We are committed to praying for Bristol and her husband-to-be and the entire Palin family as they walk through a very private matter in the eyes of the public.”