ST. PAUL, Minn. — Republican convention delegates rallied Monday around presumptive vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin as they made the first day of their gathering a subdued show of sympathy for Hurricane Gustav's victims.
First lady Laura Bush and Cindy McCain, the wife of the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, addressed the convention, staying away from partisan politics.
"As we gather in Minnesota, a great storm afflicts our country," Cindy McCain said. "And when one of us is threatened, we are all threatened. As Americans, we all rise to the challenge."
Outside the convention hall, an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 antiwar protesters marched down St. Paul's streets, sometimes smashing windows, blocking roads and tossing bottles. Police used pepper spray to subdue them.
Inside the Xcel Energy Center, the site of the Republican gathering, delegates were eager to promote political unity. It was nearly impossible to find a delegate or Republican official who thought that news about Palin's 17-year-old unmarried daughter's pregnancy had hurt the presidential ticket, and Laura Bush drew loud cheers when she mentioned the Alaska governor's name.
"It's a personal, family matter," said Auburn, Calif., delegate Ann Whitley.
"I don't believe it's a controversy," said San Luis Obispo County assessor Tom Bordonaro, who added, "It's hard for me to believe Senator McCain didn't know about this."
McCain's staff said that he'd known about the pregnancy before he announced Palin as his choice for vice president Friday, and had judged it irrelevant.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, was angry that anyone was talking about the development.
"The media are despicable for blowing this out of proportion. They're hitting way below the belt," he said.
Few were disturbed at the idea that John McCain may not have thoroughly checked Palin's background. "If McCain had been inclined to pick Palin and then changed his mind because of this, I'd have thought less of him," said Gary Bauer, the chairman of the Campaign for Working Families, which promotes family values.
President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney had been scheduled to address the convention Monday night, but the program was canceled Sunday because of Gustav.
The last-minute additions of Laura Bush and Cindy McCain, however, were a signal Monday that the convention could be inching back to its original purpose: to promote the Republican ticket.
McCain campaign manager Rick Davis refused to discuss his boss' process for vetting Palin, but was more upbeat about plans for getting the convention back on track Tuesday, saying he was "more optimistic than we were a day ago."
McCain is scheduled to make his acceptance speech Thursday, and Davis said "there's no contingency planning at this point that would have him outside the city" to make that address.
Resuming the convention's regular business Tuesday, when keynote speaker Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor, is scheduled to appear, would give the Republican Party the best of both political worlds: It would have shown the nation that it was compassionate on Monday, and avoided having the unpopular Bush make a prime-time appearance to put his stamp on the convention's start. Then the party would be free to spend the rest of the week trying to demonize Democratic opponent Barack Obama.
But Monday still wasn't a day for partisan politics at the convention. Party Chairman Mike Duncan opened the session by asking delegates to make donations to the Red Cross by hitting a text message code. Web sites for state relief funds ringed the hall.
Later, Laura Bush introduced a video featuring Gulf of Mexico state governors thanking the Republican delegates for their hurricane-relief efforts.
"The effect of Hurricane Gustav is just now being measured," she said. "When such events occur, we are reminded that first we are all Americans, and that our shared American ideals will always transcend political parties and partisanship."
Republicans were trying hard to erase the memory of the Bush administration's handling of Hurricane Katrina's aftermath. The response to the 2005 storm sent Bush's popularity plunging to levels he's never been able to raise.
Laura Bush conceded Monday that "there were lots of mistakes, and they were on every level" during Katrina.
She told CBS News in an interview that "they were local, they were statewide and there were certainly federal mistakes, but we learned from those." She wouldn't detail the mistakes.
John McCain began his day in Waterville, Ohio, touring an emergency response facility, while running mate Palin was in St. Paul but wasn't expected to make any public appearances.
"Governor Palin is working on her speech for the convention," said Davis, who quickly added, "We're confident there will be a speech at the convention."
On the Democratic side, Obama was briefed about the storm and its potential impact by Herbie Johnson, the deputy director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Obama was scheduled to hold an evening campaign event in Milwaukee, Wis., then return to Chicago to monitor the hurricane's progress before deciding on further campaign events.
He also sent a text message to supporters, urging them to give at least $5 each to the Red Cross.
Vice presidential candidate Joe Biden canceled his appearance at a Pittsburgh Labor Day parade so he could keep an eye on storm developments, but later campaigned in Scranton, where he was born, and criticized McCain's foreign-policy views.
"The only guy in America in a position of some authority who is out of sync with the whole rest of the world is John McCain," Biden said.
William Douglas contributed to this article from Ohio.
McClatchy Newspapers 2008