The focus on Hurricane Gustav along the U.S. Gulf coast is putting a damper on the beginning of this week's Republican National Convention, which is being held in a sports arena in St. Paul, Minnesota.  VOA National correspondent Jim Malone has been talking to some of the delegates, who are being urged to forego celebrating the nomination of Republican presidential candidate John McCain, and focus their energy on helping the relief effort.

Republican delegates here in St. Paul are well aware that the eyes of the nation are on the Gulf coast, watching the impact of Hurricane Gustav.

Republican Congressman John Mica of Florida tells VOA that the air of excitement surrounding this year's convention has been blunted a bit by worries about Gustav.  

"We want to celebrate the convention and this political process, but, of course, when the country has a natural, pending disaster, everybody wants to come together and make sure that is taken care of first." Mica adds, "But it is a great combination of spirit, both people who want to help fellow countrymen and also get back into the political swing of it. So, it is a careful balance."

The Republican Party is mobilizing the convention to send care packages to those affected along the Gulf coast and raise money.

Florida delegate Bill Bunting says the usual series of parties that draw flocks of delegates and lobbyists will be cut back this week.

"I think we can do our share of partying and be respectful at the same time.  I just don't think we should do overkill when people are out there suffering.  "And," he says, "if we can help them in some small way, then I think our message will get out there."

Apart from the storm, many Republicans here are excited by the choice of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as Senator John McCain's vice presidential running mate.

Texas delegate Rex Teter says a lot of the people he has talked to are anxious to hear Governor Palin speak to the convention later this week.  "There is a certain part that we would like to do some of the business.  We would certainly like to see Senator McCain, who we believe will be the next president of the United States.  I would like to see Governor Palin.  For many people, she is new to us.  You know, we are just revved up [excited] for her, and for her being on the ticket," says Teter.

Former Congressman Bob Michel of Illinois once served as the leader of the House Republicans, and has chaired three previous Republican nominating conventions. Michel says he was surprised by McCain's choice of Palin, a relative unknown, but he adds that the pick is generating excitement among Republican activists. "First of all, I was rather taken aback by the choice of McCain with Sarah [Palin].  But the more people I talk to, my gosh, it is amazing how enthusiastic they are for her and the fact that when you analyze it, she has had more executive experience than Obama has," says Michel.

Republicans have accused Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama of lacking experience. He, in turn, has charged that McCain represents a continuation of the policies of President Bush. Political analyst Norman Ornstein says McCain's pick of Palin is proving popular with those attending the convention, especially social conservatives.  Ornstein says Palin's reputation as a maverick and reformer could help McCain put some political distance between himself and President Bush. "He has now got an energized Evangelical conservative base in places where he had some shakiness going for him otherwise.  He has erased, to some considerable degree, though not entirely, the problem that he was [perceived as representing] four more years of George Bush."

Most of the Republican delegates here seem upbeat about this week's convention, and don't seem concerned about public opinion polls that have long shown a majority of the country wants to go in a different direction after eight years of the Bush administration.