By Peter Canellos, Boston Globe Washington Bureau Chief
ST. PAUL _ As delegates to the Republican National Convention were riveted to TV shots of water lapping over levees, they expressed hope that a potential disaster had been averted on the Gulf Coast and that their own convention could proceed with only the loss of speeches by President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.
That may not be much of a loss at all, given the president's very low favorability ratings -- just 28 percent, according to a new CBS News/New York Times poll -- and the fact that Hurricane Gustav gave John McCain a chance to show that he takes natural disasters very seriously.
But the cancellation of Day One of the Republican convention may have a deeper political cost, one that pales in comparison to the potential loss of life on the Gulf Coast but that could have an impact on the presidential race, nonetheless.
Day One wasn't going to look at the Bush-Cheney record in total, but rather at the administration's one big talking point: It's record of protecting the country from another major terrorist attack. This is not only the one aspect of the Bush record that McCain enthusiastically embraces, it's a key part of the party's argument against Barack Obama.
In praising Bush and Cheney, the Republicans hoped to paint Obama as dangerously naive: Too eager to negotiate with hostile regimes, too willing to put excessive concerns about civil liberties ahead of tracking terrorists, and too quick to pull out of Iraq.
The speeches by Bush and Cheney would certainly have rekindled memories of 9/11 and the fears of another attack by Islamic extremists. As in 2004, the president and vice president would have argued that continuing the war in Iraq is a way of fighting back against extremists -- of staying on offense, and never surrendering.
But now the Republicans won't be able to sound those notes nearly as loudly. Other speakers -- such as former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who is scheduled to take the podium tomorrow night, if the convention goes forward -- will try to make these arguments. But the likelihood is they'll be muted by the need to talk about victims on the Gulf Coast, and the attention that the hurricane has placed on domestic concerns.
Tuesday's speakers also include some who don't particularly focus on terrorism, such as former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who is an evangelical minister, and former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson, whose laid-back persona is ill-suited to any kind of an attack role.
Then, on Wednesday, the party will nominate Alaska Governor Sarah Palin for vice president, and she will offer the usual praise of McCain as a military hero who knows how to keep America safe. But Palin is on the ticket to shore up McCain's domestic credibility, not foreign policy. And her lack of experience makes her unlikely to address fears of terrorism with the forcefulness of Bush and Cheney.
That would leave McCain himself to sound the baleful warnings of another 9/11 -- and he won't hesitate to do so, especially after Obama took him on so directly in Denver last week. But McCain has a lot of other agenda items to cover in his acceptance speech, hoping to present himself as a man capable of rebuilding the economy as well as fighting a war, and of securing home mortgages as well as national safety.
As the choice of Palin indicates, McCain hopes to go toe to toe with Obama as a candidate of change -- offering a more sensible, less intrusive approach to tackling big problems like energy and health care. But national security remains the Republican Party's calling card.
McCain's efforts to show sensitivity to disaster relief, gas prices, housing costs, and other domestic concerns are important only in so far as he can take some of those issues off the table, and win the election on his superior national-security credentials.
But for McCain to win, the nation needs to be focused on overseas threats. Right now, it's not. And the Republican convention, which promised to serve as a reminder of those dangers, has lost its best opportunity to do so.
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.