President George Bush will throw his “enthusiastic support” behind Republican presidential hopeful John McCain as the party’s national convention gets back on track today, the White House said.
Mr Bush, who will address the convention by videolink from the White House, was given a prime-time speaking slot after cancelling his speech last night to focus his efforts on Hurricane Gustav.
As strong winds and torrential rain hit the US Gulf coast, a political storm was growing over the Arizona senator’s choice of running mate Sarah Palin, who announced that her teenage daughter was pregnant.
US political pundits have questioned Mr McCain’s judgment in selecting the first female Alaskan governor as his vice presidential nominee after it emerged he had met her only once before making his decision.
Mrs Palin is engulfed in her own political scandal over the dismissal of a commissioner who refused to fire her former brother-in-law following a bitter divorce from her sister.
With the news that her 17-year-old daughter Bristol is pregnant with her high school hockey-playing boyfriend, the risks associated with choosing a virtual unknown figure on the national stage were becoming clear.
But Mr McCain could also suffer from receiving the high-profile support of the president tonight.
Mr Bush is one of America’s most unpopular presidents and the Democrats have been trying to tie Mr McCain to the Bush administration since the general election campaign began.
Last week, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama said his rival Mr McCain offered a third term of Mr Bush’s failed policies and America was better than the country it had been for the last eight years.
“Eight is enough!” he said.
An image of Mr Bush being applauded as he declares that Mr McCain should be elected as the next president is almost certain to be hijacked by Democrats and the Obama campaign for use in future adverts.
Some Republicans had breathed a sigh of relief to have the unpopular president out of the way, dealing with Gustav and off the television screens.
But ahead of tonight’s speech at the Xcel Energy Centre in St Paul, Minnesota, White House press secretary Dana Perino said the president was “looking forward to being able to thank the Republicans gathered there for all of their support over the years and to throw his enthusiastic support behind John McCain for president”.
Initially, the White House was so concerned about intruding on Mr McCain’s show that aides would neither confirm nor even discuss the on-going planning for what was widely known to be happening: that Mr Bush would speak tonight.
The president’s aides were hypersensitive about any move that might offend Mr McCain or be seen as trumping his show – a by-product of Mr McCain’s delicate effort to distance himself from the president.
There was a flurry of last-minute changes as Republicans tried to patch together a new schedule for the three remaining days of their convention.
Yesterday’s opening session was abbreviated and stripped of sharp political rhetoric as the nation kept its focus on Gustav, which turned out to be less devastating than feared.
Mr McCain’s wife Cindy echoed her husband’s message that delegates should “take off our Republican hats and put on our American hats” as she made a televised appeal for donations to help the victims.
She said she was “so honoured and so proud” to be standing on stage next to first lady Laura Bush.
Former Democrat Joe Lieberman and TV star and former senator Fred Thompson, who dropped out of the presidential race earlier this year, were also due to speak tonight as the Republicans seek to reintroduce Americans to Mr McCain and Mrs Palin.
Outside the Xcel Energy Centre where the convention officially began, police contended with thousands of protesters, some of whom attacked a group of Connecticut delegates.
Others smashed cars, punctured tires and threw bottles, while many marched peacefully in a gathering that was initially conceived as an anti-war demonstration.
Police arrested a few protesters for lighting a bin on fire and pushing it into a police car.