[Note - VOA's Special 2-hour program from the convention for Monday, 1 September, has been cancelled, but the specials are expected to resume Tuesday-Thursday, from 0100-0300 UTC each night.]

The U.S. Republican Party is mobilizing delegates to the party's national convention to collect aid for victims of Hurricane Gustav, which struck the U.S. Gulf Coast Monday. As VOA's Michael Bowman reports from St. Paul, Minnesota, the site of the Republican gathering, events that were meant to celebrate the nomination of Senator John McCain as the party's presidential candidate have been canceled or severely curtailed. 

With the eyes of the nation focused on U.S. Gulf states in the path of the hurricane, Republicans are suspending partisan speeches to promote charitable donations and the distribution of relief supplies to those affected by Hurricane Gustav.

As the storm approached Sunday, Republican presidential candidate John McCain said it was time to put politics aside and focus on the needs of the Gulf Coast.

Campaign manager Rick Davis told reporters Monday that party delegations from affected states have set up working groups to focus on aid delivery. In addition, a special hurricane information center is being set up at the convention site.

Davis says concerned citizens are being urged to volunteer time to gather and package relief supplies that will be dispatched from nearby Minneapolis. "In response to Senator McCain's admonition to do what we can to help those affected, we have established a center to create and ship 80,000 comfort packages to the Gulf Coast region. We are in the process of assembling an assembly center inside the Minneapolis Convention Center to accommodate volunteers who can help us pack such basic necessities as toothpaste, toothbrushes, soap," said Davis.

Speeches by President Bush and Vice President Cheney that were to be delivered later in the day for the opening of the convention have been canceled. Campaign officials say Senator McCain's wife, Cindy McCain, will address the convention in a non-partisan role, urging charitable donations for hurricane relief efforts.

First Lady Laura Bush will also speak at the convention Monday evening, introducing a video featuring Gulf Coast state governors. The first lady says she hopes and expects the response to Gustav will be far superior to that of Hurricane Katrina, which struck the Gulf Coast in 2005, and for which the federal government's response was criticized as slow and ineffective.  

Speaking on CBS' Early Show, Mrs. Bush said, "There were lots of mistakes [in 2005], and they were on every level. But we learned from those, and I think we will see that the coordination between the federal government, the state government and the local government will be much, much better, and I think that what was learned from the hurricane [Katrina] is something that can serve the country very well for any sort of disaster."

Aside from hurricane-related activities, the first day of the convention will be a working session, taking procedural steps to officially nominate John McCain. 

Meanwhile, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama has pledged to mobilize his base of supporters to aid hurricane victims. Obama is campaigning in the battleground state of Michigan.

The scaled-back Republican National Convention is not deterring demonstrators from making their voices heard in St. Paul. Nine protesters were arrested Sunday near the convention site, and more demonstrations, on issues ranging from the war in Iraq to the protection of civil liberties to the environment, are expected during the day.