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CNN LATE EDITION WITH WOLF BLITZER

Hurricane Gustav Threatens Gulf Coast; Will GOP Convention Be Postponed?

Aired August 31, 2008 - 10:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer reporting from St. Paul, Minnesota. We're here at the Xcel Energy Center, where the Republicans are scheduled, and repeat scheduled, to open their national convention here tomorrow. But so much is up in the air right now because of Hurricane Gustav. It's a monster storm, and it's approaching the U.S. Gulf Coast, including New Orleans, this only three years after Hurricane Katrina. And Republicans, including the president of the United States and the vice president of the United States, both of whom were scheduled to come here tomorrow, Monday, to address this Republican gathering, all of that remains unclear right now. what the Republicans are going to do because of Hurricane Gustav.
We have reporters all over the Gulf Coast right now monitoring what's going on. We're also standing by for remarks from Michael Chertoff, the secretary of homeland secretary. He's over at Andrews Air Force base just outside Washington in Maryland. You see that small plane with the insignia "United States of America" on it. That plane will carry him down to the Gulf Coast to be on top of what's going on.

So many people remember the enormous blunders three years ago in advance of Hurricane Katrina. They are desperately trying right now to avoid similar blunders right now.

We're going to get the latest update from our Severe Weather Center. Reynolds Wolf is standing by for that. Also, Sean Callebs. He's on the road right now. He's actually driving north of New Orleans towards Baton Rouge. Sean Callebs is in a vehicle, and we want to show our viewers some of that -- some of the lines, some of the mass evacuation that is going on, and we're going to go to Sean Callebs momentarily.

But Reynolds Wolf, let me get an update first on what exactly is the status of Gustav, where is it right now, and where is it heading?

REYNOLDS WOLF, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Right now, Wolf, the center of the storm is about 466 miles from New Orleans. Just to give our viewers at home an idea of how far away that is, that's roughly the distance of New York -- from New York to Cleveland, Ohio.

The storm is getting closer as we speak. It was weakening a little bit over the last hour. Now it appears that the back side of the north half of the storm is beginning to fill in. It is getting stronger. Winds of 120 miles per hour, gusting to 145. It is still a major, major hurricane, and the latest path that we have, Wolf, from the National Hurricane Center shows the storm continuing that northwestern trajectory, roughly around, say, 15, 16 miles per hour. And the storm expected to make its way into the north central Gulf as we get to early Monday morning. Winds of 145 miles per hour.

BLITZER: Over at Andrews Air Force base. Stand by.

SECRETARY OF HOMELAND SECURITY MICHAEL CHERTOFF: ... somewhere between Vermilion Bay and New Orleans in Louisiana. Again, it's possible this will change, but this is where most of the prediction seems to be centered.

The storm is moving a little more quickly than we were seeing late yesterday, which means it will arrive within certainly 24 hours in terms of tropical storm winds. At the same time, that may benefit us a little bit by minimizing the strengthening.

We're still looking, however, at what may be a low Category 4 or a high Category 3 storm.

And, again, you know, as with all storms, these can be tricky. These can change.

That means that we basically have the rest of Sunday to complete the evacuation of the coast of Louisiana, as well as evacuation activities in Texas and Mississippi.

I spoke to the president early this morning at some length about the state of preparations. He's fully committed to throwing all of the assets of the federal government into this fight.

I was over at the FEMA headquarters talking to our DOD partners, General Renuart of Northcom, as well as our state partners in Louisiana. The main evacuation is going well. We are concerned because a number of the hospitals that originally planned to shelter in place have now decided they are going to actually try to evacuate their critically ill and medical needs patients. As a consequence, we've had to increase the tempo of our air flights into New Orleans in order to make sure that we can accommodate the flow. We're going to be watching this very carefully today.

I spoke to my counterpart in Canada, Stockwell Day. The Canadians have released to us a number of aircraft that we are also going to be using to evacuate these special medical needs people. So this is going to be probably the most important challenge we're going to be addressing during the course of the next 12 hours.

Again, I want to warn people that notwithstanding the predictions, the storm can still change, and, therefore, I would not have let people drop their guard in Mississippi or in parts of Texas simply because it looks like the main hurricane is going to be impacting in New Orleans.

Finally, remember, once the hurricane makes landfall, it continues to be a dangerous weather event. The prediction is it will move northwest across Louisiana into east Texas. There's going to be a lot of rainfall. That means there can be localized flooding. And so we're going to have to be following this carefully over the next several days.

So with that, I'll take some questions.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, will you be staying in the region during the storm to ride it out?

CHERTOFF: I will.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

CHERTOFF: Well, I've actually lived through Katrina and any number of disasters over the last three and a half years, so I think I'm well trained and well prepared. I'm well supported in terms of my ability to communicate back to the president and back to Washington, so I'm comfortable that I'm not going to lose touch. And so I'm not worried about my own safety. QUESTION: Can you speak to the situation with evacuations? (inaudible) available for New Orleaneans, were you aware of any issues with that?

CHERTOFF: There was an issue where some of the contract buses apparently did not make their appearance. This is probably the case with almost any emergency, which is the plan -- as soon as you make contact with the enemy, the plan starts to suffer some alteration.

The good news here is that really good work with the state authorities allowed us to backfill on the buses, using school buses and other transportation. So the report I got this morning is that that was moving well.

But, again, we have backup capabilities, particularly military capabilities, should we need them.

I do want to emphasize the window is closing. Once you get tropical storm winds, there's no more evacuation.

I've also heard reports that some people are still determined to try to ride the storm out in the coast. That strikes me as exceptionally foolish. I think the local authorities have made it very clear, and I saw them doing it this morning, that the National Guard will protect people's property. People should heed the instructions to evacuate and protect their own lives.

So, you know, we're prepared for the fact that we may have to improvise today if various elements of what we're relying upon don't live up to expectation. We've got some margin for doing that, but this is something that we're literally -- we've been working on overnight and we'll be working on all during the rest of the day, and I expect to get down to the evacuation areas myself later today to make sure that everybody is fully focused on this.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE). How likely is it that we can avoid the problems that Katrina posed?

CHERTOFF: Well, I think there's no question that we're doing much better than we did in Katrina. If you look at the evacuation, it's begun a whole 24 to 36 hours earlier than Katrina. The preparations for people with medical needs, people without automobiles, I think we've already seen the benefit of that.

Every storm is different. This storm is going to come in differently than Katrina did. It's going to move to the west of New Orleans. That's actually bad news, because the most powerful part of the storm is actually the right side of the storm. So it's going to be in some ways more challenging than Katrina, because there's going to be a broader range of people who have to evacuate.

But, having worked over the last several days with the state and local authorities, I think they are well focused and well integrated with what we are doing.

Nevertheless, as I say, it's going to be a very, very tough event. Depending on how strong the storm is, we're going to see a different level of impact with respect to New Orleans itself and some of the coastal communities. If we wind up lucky and it's a Category 3, then I anticipate we're going to get less damage than a Category 4. We may not know what we're going to have at landfall for, you know, some period of time, because, again, there's some weather activity at high altitude that may yet affect the way in which the storm comes in.

So we're prepared for the worst. We're also prepared, frankly, to improvise, and we've got a plan B. What we need is the maximum level of cooperation from the individual public.

UNKNOWN: Final question, and then we've got to get going.

QUESTION: Secretary, during Katrina, (inaudible). Do you believe that you have that now, during (ph) and after?

CHERTOFF: Yes, I have to say we are -- we do have a unified command and control. We are embedded with the state. The state is embedded with us. There's been no disconnect in terms of the ability to work together.

Like with any other emergency, you know, the people on the ground are the people who are going to have to accurately report what's happening.

CHERTOFF: That's been going on so far.

When we have hitches -- and we've had some hitches -- we've been able to recover and adapt. And that's really, over the next 48 hours, what the name of the game is.

It's going to be to adapt to unforeseen emerging circumstances. That's what an emergency is. And that's what I'm going to go down to make sure we can do.

So I'm looking forward to getting down there so we can get our hands on the situation.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) CHERTOFF: Again, the levees are stronger than Katrina. I've seen the barrier at the 17th Street Canal. That is an effective barrier. However, if you get a Category 4 storm, there is a real likelihood of getting some overtopping.

Additionally, rain is a big factor here. Even if there's no overtopping of the levees, rain will likely cause some flooding in New Orleans, so that's why evacuation becomes critical.

And, again, we -- you know, we've got to hope the storm diminishes a little bit, but we have to be prepared for the worst.

Thanks very much. We'll see you down there.

BLITZER: There he is, Michael Chertoff. He's about to get on that plane, fly off to the Gulf Coast. He says he wants to be personally in charge of what's going on. All of us, of course, recalling the disaster leading up to Hurricane Katrina almost exactly three years ago.

Let's go to the head of FEMA right now. David Paulison is joining us from FEMA headquarters.

Mr. Paulison, thanks very much for coming in. Are you guys ready this time?

FEMA DIRECTOR DAVID PAULISON: We have been ready. We've been on the ground. You heard Secretary Chertoff talk about what we're doing. We pre-positioned buses, ambulances. We have trains on the ground that are moving people out. We have a tremendous amount of aircraft and the Department of Defense flying people out. All of these things were put in place prior to the storm as opposed to Katrina that came in after the storm. So, yes, we're all ready.

Do we have challenges? No question about it. We've got several hospitals that we're going to shelter in place, and now they've asked to be evacuated, so we're working through that. We've worked all night long to make sure that we're flying more aircraft in. Canada is lending us aircraft to make sure we have enough planes to get people out of there, get them out of harm's way.

BLITZER: The last time we all remember the lack of communications. The left hand of the U.S. government couldn't speak to the right hand of the U.S. government. There was no real coordination between federal, state, and local authorities. The radio frequencies weren't -- weren't compatible.

Has all that been repaired? Can you assure the American people right now that there is this level of cooperation, you, the state, and local authorities?

PAULISON: Wolf, the -- your observation is absolutely correct. During Katrina, the level of communication -- not the radio communication, per se, but just being able to talk to each other, being on the same page -- simply did not happen in Katrina. We have put in place our National Incident Management System. We'll use the unified command. Every afternoon at noontime, we have video conferences where everybody is on board.

We have the states on there. We have all the Department of Defenses on there. All the federal agencies that are having a part of this are a part of that videoconference. And for an hour-and-a-half, we go through every issue to make sure everybody understands what it is.

I was down there the day before yesterday with Secretary Chertoff. The state and the local communities are in sync with each other that we did not see during Katrina. The states are talking to each other.

I was just watching the contraflow and how well that's going. When Louisiana asked with contraflow where they have to work with Mississippi and Texas, that is happening. The governors are talking to each other.

It's the best piece of communication that I've seen in a long, long time, and it's working very well.

BLITZER: There was an editorial Friday in the New York Times. I'll read this -- this section from it. "Three years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, residents there are nervously watching the progress of Tropical Storm, threatening to be Hurricane Gustav." It's now a Category 3 or 4.

"No less nerve-racking is the knowledge that federal emergency planners have failed to come up with a new strategy for providing housing to disaster victims."

Is the New York Times right in their editorial?

PAULISON: No, they're not. We have a national strategy housing plan that came out for '08. Our national housing strategy we just released last month. We have plans in place to make sure we can take care of people.

There is -- you know, we're not going to use travel trailers, obviously, but we have mobile homes, we have Katrina cottages, we have Mississippi cottages, we have apartments, we have hotels and motels. There's a whole process that we're going to use to make sure people have a place to stay. We're not going to repeat the same mistakes we did in Katrina.

There's -- it's a different agency, Wolf. It really is, a different philosophy of being proactive and not reactive, working as partners with the state, instead of working independently, an entirely different type of system.

Again, are we going to have our challenges? No question about it. This is a very, very dangerous storm.

So right now, we're focused on evacuations, working with the state, working with the local communities to make sure that everyone has an opportunity to evacuate. We don't want anyone -- anyone to stay in the city and try to ride the storm out. We want them to get out and move to a safe place.

BLITZER: And one final question, Administrator Paulison. Is it your sense right now that Gustav could be actually worse, more devastating than Katrina?

PAULISON: That's a possibility. Yesterday, it briefly went to a Category 5, then back down to a Category 4. This morning, thank goodness, it's a Category 3. But it has to go across the rest of the gulf.

If it comes in at a different angle, it will test parts of the levee that were not tested during Katrina. The Corps has done a yeoman's job of rebuilding the levees, making them higher and stronger, but there are still a lot of vulnerabilities.

This could be a -- this could be a much worse storm. Hopefully, it won't be, but the possibilities are definitely there.

BLITZER: And New Orleans is -- based on everything you know right now, right sort of in the bull's eye?

PAULISON: That's the way it appears to be right now. Now, you know, with the hurricanes, after it came off of Cuba, it's going to be difficult to predict for a few hours exactly where it's going to go.

We've been getting reports from the hurricane center 150 miles one way or the other, but right now it looks like it's heading right towards New Orleans or just to the west of New Orleans. BLITZER: FEMA Administrator David Paulison, Mr. Paulison, good luck to you. Good luck to all the men and women you command. We're all counting on you, as you know.

PAULISON: Thank you, Wolf, I appreciate it. Appreciate your support.

BLITZER: Thank you very much.

And as you can see, this is a monster storm with very, very dangerous ramifications.

I want to go back to Reynolds Wolf at the CNN Severe Weather Center.

Reynolds, I interrupted you before when we went to Michael Chertoff, the secretary of homeland security, who was at Andrews Air Force Base getting ready to fly down to the Gulf Coast.

All right, walk us through this process, where it is right now, where it's heading. And you just heard the FEMA administrator say New Orleans could be right in the bull's eye.

WOLF: Absolutely. Wolf, one thing we've got to remember though, too, is, when Katrina made landfall, you'll remember that Katrina didn't even make a direct hit on New Orleans. In fact, it passed to the east, which meant that, if it passes to the east, it means that New Orleans was affected by the western half of the storm, the weakest part of the storm.

The way the path plays out -- I want you to follow this -- go from now into tomorrow morning, where it is expected to strengthen back up to a Category 4 storm with winds of 145 miles per hour. And then the forecast of the National Hurricane Center brings the storm on the eastern side. The eastern side of the storm is what will be affecting parts of New Orleans.

So New Orleans could be affected by the strongest part, the heaviest rainfall, the biggest storm surge, the strongest winds, on that side is -- and I'm thinking that the eye will make landfall about 60 to 70 miles to the southwest of New Orleans sometime tomorrow afternoon between the hours of, say, 1 o'clock and 3 o'clock local time.

And because it's going to be that side, the right-hand side, which Secretary Chertoff was talking about, that does mean that New Orleans will be hit by the strongest part of the storm.

Still, you look at that cone of probability, of uncertainty, if you will, there's a chance the storm could veer off a little bit more to the east, perhaps a bit to the west, but, still, a storm of this size, hundreds of miles wide, there's no question that New Orleans is going to be affected.

BLITZER: And when you say it could still veer off a little bit, that's as a result of the water temperatures, the winds as it goes across the Gulf Coast, is that right?

WOLF: Actually, what we have is we have an area of high pressure that is setting up over the Ohio Valley. And it's that area of high pressure, Wolf, that moves in a clockwise rotation. And actually the upper level winds can steer -- we refer to them as steering currents -- can actually push this storm a little bit farther off to the west.

If they weaken a little bit, well, the storm tends to turn a little bit more to the east. So it all depends a lot on those upper- level winds.

Now, you were talking about water temperatures. Water temperatures are the big thing that really can strengthen this storm.

In fact, just to the south -- actually, to the north of Cuba at this time, we have an area that we refer to as the gulf loop current, where you have water that comes in right between the Yucatan Channel to the northwest of Cuba and then back into the Strait of Florida, this is a -- really, really warm water, water temperatures anywhere from, say, the mid- to upper 80s.

And that's like high-octane fuel for these storms. And that's what really could intensify this storm, cause it to gain in strength to a Category 4, perhaps even a Category 5 storm before all is said and done. BLITZER: Well, we're praying for everyone affected by this.

Reynolds, stand by. I know you're getting constant updates. We're going to come back to you.

We're standing by to speak to the Florida governor, Charlie Crist. He certainly knows a great deal about hurricanes. It looks like Florida is going to be spared this time, but there's another hurricane potentially out there called Hanna. We're going to talk to Charlie Crist, the governor of Florida, in a moment.

BLITZER: Also, this Republican Convention, you see it here, I'm here at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. Everything is up in the air right now based on what's happening along the Gulf Coast. We'll update you on what we know right after this. You're watching a special LATE EDITION. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to our special LATE EDITION. I'm Wolf Blitzer reporting. We're here on the floor at the Republican National Convention. It's supposed to get started tomorrow, but everything right now is up in the air. They are trying to reconsider what to do as Hurricane Gustav moves towards the Gulf Coast with New Orleans right in the center of it, could be in the bull's eye.

Right now we just heard from the FEMA administrator, David Paulison, and from the secretary of homeland secretary, Michael Chertoff. The governor of Florida, Charlie Crist, is joining us now from St. Petersburg.

Governor, God knows you and all Floridians have had your wealth of experience, share of experience on hurricanes. Correct me if I'm wrong, Florida at least as far as Gustav is concerned, has been spared, is that right?

GOV. CHARLIE CRIST, R-FLA.: Well, it looks better for us now than it did, say, yesterday. But we're still concerned in the panhandle about rip currents and things of that nature. We also had some bands that came through the Fort Myers area this morning and had some tornado warnings in the Florida Keys.

So we're concerned about it. We're concerned for our neighbors too. And we want to make sure that anything that Florida can do to help our friends out in Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi, we stand at the ready to do so.

And I've talked to my fellow governors about that fact and communicated with our director of emergency management, Craig Fugate, this morning, to reach out and make sure they know that we're here to help and anything that we can do to be of assistance, that's exactly what we want to do.

BLITZER: Can you believe, Governor, that this is virtually the same -- this is the third anniversary of Katrina and that New Orleans could be hit with a devastating Category 3 or Category 4 or maybe even a Category 5 hurricane right now. Can you believe that? CRIST: No, Wolf, it's hard to believe, it really is. But, you know, things happen, and you just have to be prepared and I think that's the watchword. And I've got to tell you, Governor Jindal is doing a great job. I just listened to your interview with Secretary Chertoff and Director Paulison with FEMA.

I've been in communication with them this week as well and I couldn't be more pleased for the people of Louisiana and the entire Gulf Coast for the response from our federal government, the working and coordinated effort between the governors of the Gulf states.

It is inspiring to see. People are prepared and it's a much different situation than three years ago, and that's a good thing for the people.

BLITZER: And as you know, Governor, there's another storm brewing in the Caribbean right now, in the Atlantic, Hanna, right now, and there's some projections showing that Florida could be hit. What do we know about Hanna?

CRIST: Well, we know that we're concerned about it, there's no question there. Again, I was talking to our meteorologists this morning, and they told me that some of the models really have sort of blown up, and we're not sure exactly where it will go over the next three or four days, but certainly Florida could be in its sights.

It depends on this high weather stuff and the high pressure that you get from these steering currents that they talk about so much in the weather rooms. And so we're watching and monitoring that as well. It's like we have one on our left and one on our right and we're sort of in the middle of the eye of it.

And we want to do everything we can to monitor the situation, to be vigilant, to first and foremost, put the people of Florida and our Gulf State neighbors and their health, safety, and welfare at the forefront.

BLITZER: Are you going to be able to come out here to St. Paul and participate in this Republican Convention?

CRIST: Well, it's looking less likely. It all depends on what happens with these storms. I mean, you know, first things first, and that is protect the people of my state and make sure that we're doing everything we can to support them, give them care and comfort and be there for them.

We just had Tropical Storm Fay that came through and hit Florida an unprecedented four times. Regrettably, 14 of my fellow Floridians lost their lives as a result of that. So first and foremost, we need to be here for the people, and that's what I'm going to do.

BLITZER: Gloria Borger is here, our senior political analyst, Governor. She has a question she wants to ask you.

CRIST: Good morning, Gloria. GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Governor, what strikes you -- good morning. What strikes you as the most different between now and three years ago when Katrina struck?

CRIST: I think it's the level of preparation and the fact that so many people have, you know, been on the front side of this rather than the back side, really addressing the needs of the people in terms of making sure they get out, that there is safe passage in order to get north in Louisiana, that all the roadways are headed in the same direction.

It's a tremendous, well-coordinated, well-planned effort. You know, we learned from our past mistakes in life, and clearly that's what has happened here. The Katrina example is not a good one and a dark cloud over America at that time.

But you learn from those experiences, you move forward and from those kinds of mistakes of the past you get better. And the federal government, the state governments, and the local responders, God bless them, are doing great and coordinating incredibly well, and that's really a benefit to the people and their safety and their security.

BLITZER: Governor Crist, thanks very much for joining us. Good luck to everyone in Florida, not only as far as Gustav is concerned, but Hanna, which is brewing out in the Atlantic right now. We'll stay in close touch with you.

CRIST: Thank you, Wolf. Thank you, Gloria.

BLITZER: And there are new developments happening here in St. Paul, Minnesota, right now. What's going to happen to this Republican Convention? Our John King has been doing some digging. He's standing by, he's here with us. We'll take a quick break. Much more of our coverage right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back. We're here on the floor of the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota, but everything is up in the air right now. We don't know if this convention will take place, whether it will be abbreviated or what's going on. But John King is here, and you've been doing some reporting. What are you hearing from the organizers?

JOHN KING, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Number one, we will get an official announcement sometime early this afternoon. They are having another set of meetings today. They had meetings late into the night last night.

We know already, even though the White House says the president is unlikely to come, we're told he's not coming. They are just saying that for now...

BLITZER: He was supposed to speak Monday night, and the vice president, Dick Cheney, was supposed to be here Monday as well.

KING: Unless the storm suddenly does an unexpected u-turn, which we all know won't happen, unfortunately, the president will not be here. He'll focus on hurricane preparations. I'm told that everything is on the table, including the possibility of delaying the start tomorrow, or, increasingly more likely, is trying to pack the convention into one or two days before the hurricane makes landfall or before the damage is most severe.

They have to nominate John McCain. The party has to go through a process to officially nominate him, and they are trying to figure out how do they do that most efficiently and not have a big party going on during the hurricane.

And this is at Senator McCain's insistence. He's down in the Gulf Coast area today. He's flying there right now. He's spoken in the last 24 hours to everybody from Mike Chertoff, the homeland security secretary, to all those Gulf state governors, including Governor Crist, who you just had on; Haley Barbour of Mississippi; Bobby Jindal in Louisiana. And he says, let's do what we need to do, but let's not, A, have a political celebration and B, do anything that disrupts or takes resources away.

So we'll get an official announcement later this afternoon, but we're guaranteed very substantial changes to the planned program. BLITZER: Because our meteorologist, Reynolds Wolf, says this hurricane could hit New Orleans between 1:00 and 3:00 p.m. Central Time tomorrow, Monday afternoon.

KING: Right, and that's the hard part. They want to wait -- that's one of the key elements, what is the exact timing. Can they get the business done before it makes landfall, or get it done at least as fast as possible? Or should they delay and wait until after, and give it a couple of days to see what happens? But if they do that and it is a severe and significant storm, then the country is in the middle of a recovery effort, possibly a rescue effort. So this is the very -- this has never happened before to a major political party, so they are making very difficult decisions, and the top McCain campaign command is here, and Senator McCain is obviously keeping in touch as he travels to the region.

BLITZER: Rick Davis, the campaign manager, is already here in St. Paul and is meeting with organizers, and we expect some word later this afternoon, is that right?

KING: Yes, we will.

BLITZER: Alex Castellanos, you're a Republican strategist. What should the Republicans do about this convention, given the fact that Hurricane Gustav is a Category 4 monster with New Orleans, we just heard from the FEMA administrator and from Michael Chertoff, New Orleans, bull's eye. Could be right in the middle of it?

ALEX CASTELLANOS, GOP STRATEGIST: I think most people here, I talked to the delegates and they are all very concerned that this is certainly not a time for a bunch of political hoopla. The delegates here are saying, look, what can we do to help? Can we turn this into an opportunity to do something and have a positive impact on this?

The experience last time is very clear, that when you have something like this happen, this is a time for Americans to come together and put politics at the back of the line, and that's the message that Republicans want to send out of this convention.

BLITZER: Is that what you're hearing, Gloria?

BORGER: Talk about turning this into a big fund-raiser for social service organizations. It's not only a question of scheduling and whether you truncate the convention, but it's a question of tone, as I think is what Alex is talking about.

You can't be out there attacking your political opponent while people's lives are threatened in this country, and so everyone here is very, very well aware of that, Wolf. So, you know, it will be condensed, but it will be different. And maybe they will raise money for the Red Cross and maybe they will start raising money for all sorts of social service organizations. They will do whatever they can, because they realize that this is something that would turn the American public off, quite frankly.

BLITZER: Right. I can only imagine what the Louisiana delegation is going through right now, wondering should they come, should they not come, should they be with their loved ones?

I want to bring in Donna Brazile, our Democratic strategist. Donna, you're in Washington right now, but all of our viewers know you're from Louisiana and you have a lot of family members down there. What's their status?

DONNA BRAZILE, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Well, thank you, Wolf, first of all. They got out this time. Mayor Nagin made it very clear that people should evacuate, and as of 2:00 a.m. this morning, my last sibling got out. And she made it to Memphis about an hour ago. I have family now scattered in five states. But, Wolf, this is for those of us who remember Katrina three years ago, this time they heeded the warnings. They left.

BLITZER: And what are you hearing about other friends and acquaintances, the overall situation? Is it really better this time? Because we hear it's better that they learn the lessons of Katrina, and people are doing a better job getting out of the whole Gulf Coast area that could be hit, especially in the New Orleans area, which is so vulnerable, as all of our viewers know. Are you satisfied with what you're hearing, Donna?

BRAZILE: Yes, Wolf. You know, my major concern, outside of my family, of course, is the people in New Orleans. There are so many people that cannot afford to get out of harm's way. And Mayor Nagin, the state government, the federal government, all worked together to coordinate buses. There were buses in practically all of the important neighborhoods of the low-lying areas -- Algiers, even across the river. People were able to get there, get on those buses. They are heading to Shreveport, they are heading to points north.

The mayor also has called in emergency workers to evacuate some of the hospitals. You've covered a lot of this, but I just want to let you know personally, just talking to people -- I served on the Louisiana Recovery Authority. This time around, people feel that the government, the federal government, the state government and the local government, everyone is working together, and people have the essential information to get out there. They know the routes to take. The buses are there. They are giving them supplies, and we're also able to get the pets out this time as well.

BLITZER: What do you think, Donna, the Republicans should do right now about their convention? It's supposed to begin tomorrow. It's supposed to go on until Thursday night, but it potentially is not going to happen, or at least there will be a truncated version of the convention.

BRAZILE: Well, as you well know, there are certain things that must take place procedurally, but I think at some point, they should suspend the rules, go ahead and nominate John McCain and his running mate, the governor of Alaska, and just really take this moment to help those Americans who are fleeing the entire Gulf Coast, and to assist them in their recovery efforts. Because, as you well know, once that storm hits, emergency supplies will have to be sent into the region to help those who may have been stranded, as well as to help those who will have to figure out how to get back home and rebuild their lives again.

BLITZER: And let me ask Alex, quickly, do you agree?

CASTELLANOS: Yes, absolutely. And Donna made a good point, and that is there is business that does have to be taken care of.

BLITZER: (inaudible) nominate, you have to nominate a candidate.

CASTELLANOS: If we do not take care of that business, John McCain doesn't get on the ballot in a lot of states. There is no presidential election.

BLITZER: But they can do all that in half an hour, or an hour if they want.

CASTELLANOS: I don't know how long it takes, but it certainly doesn't take four days.

BLITZER: Yes.

BORGER: You know, Wolf, there is particular sensibility on the Republican side about this issue, because George W. Bush was blamed for failures in the rescue efforts in Hurricane Katrina. John McCain has made it a point to say that he would have managed that differently. And so every Republican I talked to here understands that particularly for the Republican Party, they have got to have the right tone and they have got to do it right this time.

BLITZER: All right, guys, I want everybody to stand by, because we have a lot more. We're watching Hurricane Gustav. It's moving, it's moving towards New Orleans and the Gulf Coast right now. There's enormous danger, not only in Louisiana but potentially Mississippi and Texas. We're watching what's going on.

BLITZER: We'll give you a complete update.

We're also here at the convention, the Republican Convention. We don't know if there will be a convention, how long of a convention. As soon as we know what's going on, we'll share it with you. This is a special LATE EDITION and we'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to the floor of the Republican National Convention. I'm Wolf Blitzer. This is a special LATE EDITION. We're watching what's happening here at the Republican Convention, all the planning that has been going on for weeks and months up in the air right now because of Hurricane Gustav, it's a Category 4 monster right now moving right towards the Louisiana coast, including New Orleans.

We have a new forecast. They are about to release a new forecast very, very soon at the top of the hour. Stand by. We'll see if there has been any changes in intensity or direction. We'll bring you that momentarily.

But I want to go to the floor of the convention right now. CNN's Howard Kurtz of our "RELIABLE SOURCES" is standing by with three really plugged-in reporters who can give us a good sense of what they know about this convention and the impact it's facing as a result of Gustav -- Howie.

HOWARD KURTZ, HOST, "RELIABLE SOURCES": Thanks, Wolf. Well, all the reporters have dragged themselves here from Denver but not before being rocked by McCain's choice of Sarah Palin to be his running mate. So will McCain and Palin get the same kind of coverage here in St. Paul that Barack Obama and Joe Biden did at the Democratic Convention?

Joining me now is Dana Milbank, Washington Post columnist and CNN contributor; Lynn Sweet, Washington bureau chief of The Chicago Sun- Times; and Roger Simon, chief political columnist for politico.com. We'll get to the hurricane in just a minute.

But, Dana, seconds after Palin's name leaked, the TV pundits, the anchors were saying, is she qualified to be a heartbeat from the presidency? Is she a token woman? How fair was that?

DANA MILBANK, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Of course she's qualified, she was a former Miss Wasilla. But, look, it took everybody by surprise, the announcement made us collectively in the media look like a bunch of fools because we were authoritatively proclaiming the short list and she wasn't actually on it.

So there were complaints of sort of soft sexism actually from the right and the left. But in general I think she got a pretty good splash out of it there.

KURTZ: Your publication Politico said this was a desperate move by John McCain. Isn't it a tad early for that judgment?

ROGER SIMON, CHIEF POLITICAL COLUMNIST, POLITICO: Yes, what has upset the media is that we realize we're no longer John McCain's base. He made this decision for another base, the social conservatives in the Republican Party and we're sort of shocked and dismayed by that.

But, you know, her choice makes some sense on a number of levels.

KURTZ: On the coverage of this woman who most of America doesn't know, Lynn Sweet, she has been described as an ex-beauty queen, Dana has already taken that shot, a woman who goes ice fishing and likes to eat mooseburgers.

There seems to be a little bit of a subtle mockery here that some might say is sexist.

LYNN SWEET, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, THE CHICAGO SUN-TIMES: Actually, I think quite the opposite right now because they have gotten out a fuller resume. It is their job to tell the whole story. She's also an athlete, a mayor, government official, mother of five, and that is just her biography.

This is an election where story line means a lot. It has taken Obama partly to where he is today. I...

KURTZ: But Politico also asks the question, how will she balance raising her five kids with the demands of a national campaign or being in the White House, a question that would never be asked of a man?

SWEET: And right. And people that start the coverage like that I think are looking at it through a lens that is unfair right and could be called sexist. I think that will go away. Part of this happens when the media is surprised, Howie. And the usual thing that...

KURTZ: We're supposed to be professionals. Who cares if we're surprised. So we got it wrong.

SWEET: Well, I think...

KURTZ: It wasn't Romney. It wasn't Pawlenty.

SWEET: And then that hurts the mainstream press because if there's one thing left in this very competitive reporting atmosphere, is that the blogosphere will say, well, what good are we if we couldn't even figure this out ahead of time or game it enough to put her on the media list?

SIMON: You know, there's nothing wrong with waiting for reality. I'm not sure it is really our duty to guess 48 hours in advance what we're going to know 48 hours in the future.

KURTZ: Well, especially when McCain hadn't quite made up his mind. But does a conservative woman, Dana Milbank, who is fervently opposed to abortion and certain forms of gay rights get different treatment from the media -- some would say the liberal media, than a liberal woman might if Barack Obama had picked a woman or if he had picked Hillary?

MILBANK: You know, i do give the blogosphere some credit here because we are getting hammered in the media from both the right, as would you expect it, but also from the left, the same people who were complaining about our treatment of Hillary Clinton, a lot of them are coming out and saying, hey, you're being unfair. So there is a bit of consistency to it.

So yes, I think inevitably there's a little bit of that going on, but that's not the dominant theme, I think.

KURTZ: How much is the hurricane as it barrels down the Gulf going to draw media attention away from what's happening here in this arena?

SIMON: Oh, I think we're going to see a split screen convention where, you know, half the screen or more is going to be Katrina and the other half is going to be here. They are talking about canceling whole days or canceling the nomination itself.

I think it's like letting the terrorists win. I think they ought to go ahead with this thing, forget about the balloon drop. The balloons are there but it's a cliche anyway. They can do all sorts of stuff. They can contribute blood here. They can pass the hat for money. They can make serious speeches.

But this does serve a legal purpose. They are choosing a nominee for the Republican presidential campaign.

KURTZ: And of course, we have to decide how much attention we're going to place on a very important convention here and the introduction of Sarah Palin and all of that. But, on the other hand, a million people have been evacuated from the Gulf.

Let's look back briefly at the Democratic Convention. All the things that were in the media about the Hillary revolt, the roll call, the stadium, the Greek columns, none of that seems very important after the convention actually took place. Did we focus on the wrong things?

SWEET: Well, I think it was this very situational and for the time it was ephemeral that we were writing about which why we correctly, I think, are moving on. The McCain people counted on the announcement of his vice presidential choice to capture the headlines.

And now between this and the hurricane the -- all of the success of the Obama convention will not be what we're focusing on because the story line has moved on, Howie. KURTZ: Barack Obama got rave reviews, some would say, gushing reviews for his big speech at Invesco Field. McCain obviously is not that kind of orator so is there likely to be a real difference in the way the speeches are covered and contrasted by our journalistic colleagues?

MILBANK: Likely to be a huge difference. I mean, Bill Maher on Friday night was suggesting that the anchors on another network were ready to have sex with the candidate that night.

I think there is going to be a huge disparity in the treatment, but a lot of it has to do with this candidate named Gustav. So a lot will be situational rather than reflecting some sort of a media bias. KURTZ: Leaving the weather -- the extreme weather aside, is it fair for us to go crazy over one candidate who happens to be a great speaker, doesn't necessarily mean he's going to be a great president versus John McCain?

MILBANK: Right.

SIMON: The bar is lowered for McCain. Everyone knows he is not the speaker that Barack Obama is.

And he's had difficult moments. He really needs a TelePrompTer. He doesn't like to read speeches. And when you make him read a speech, he reads it from the podium, and tends to put his head down, and his campaign spends a lot of time working with him on it.

All he has to do is be sincere, and warm, and strong, and experienced, and look presidential.

KURTZ: And beat the media's expectations. That's the game.

SIMON: Which may not be hard.

KURTZ: Roger Simon, Lynn Sweet, Dana Milbank, thanks for joining us.

Wolf Blitzer, back to you.

BLITZER: Howie, thanks very much. Thank the reporters, as well.

We're just getting in from the National Hurricane Center an update on where Hurricane Gustav is moving right now, its intensity. Our severe weather expert, Reynolds Wolf, is standing by. We're going to go to him momentarily.

Also, Susan Roesgen, she's in New Orleans. She's getting ready, like others are, for this monster storm. Much more of our special coverage right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's go right to Reynolds Wolf.

Reynolds, you have an update from the National Hurricane Center on Hurricane Gustav?

WOLF: That's right, Wolf. This just in. Winds are still at 120 miles an hour, gusting to 150. It's about 400 miles or so from New Orleans.

The latest we have for you, Wolf, is that it has picked up quite a bit of its forward speed, still to the northwest, but at a little bit of a faster clip.

Originally, we thought that it was going to make landfall around -- anywhere between 1 o'clock or 3 o'clock local time. Now it appears that, as we get into early Monday morning, winds will be at 135, still a major hurricane, but making landfall around noontime local time.

You'll also notice, Wolf, we do anticipate the storm will actually increase to a Category 4 storm shortly before making landfall.

Still, New Orleans, right there in that cone of uncertainty, by all sorts of the imagination, will catch the brunt of the storm, in terms of a tremendous amount of rainfall, some strong wind gusts, well in excess of 100 miles per hour, and storm surge that could be in excess of 15 feet, certainly a rough time for the Crescent City.

We are going to keep a sharp eye on this, Wolf. And as we get more updates, we're going to pass them on to you.

BLITZER: And how would this compare -- very briefly, Reynolds -- with Katrina?

WOLF: Katrina, you'll remember, passed a little bit more to the east, which actually, at that time, New Orleans actually caught the weakest part of the storm.

The biggest reason why we had the issues with Katrina really had very little to do with just the sheer force of Katrina, but rather just because of the failure of the levees. And you had, of course, the widespread problems in New Orleans.

This time, you're going to have more direct contact with this storm in New Orleans. It could be devastating, there's no question.

BLITZER: All right. Stand by, Reynolds. We're going to be coming back to you.

We're going to go to Susan Roesgen. She's in New Orleans right now. Much more of "Late Edition" right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: This is a special "Late Edition." I'm Wolf Blitzer.

We're here in St. Paul, Minnesota, getting ready for what's supposed to be the Republican National Convention, but everything is up in the air right now because of a monster storm, Hurricane Gustav. It's moving towards the U.S. Gulf Coast.

It's a Category 3, Category 4. It could become a Category 5 storm, with New Orleans right in the bull's eye.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer reporting.

Let's get the latest, because only moments ago the National Hurricane Center issued an update. Reynolds Wolf is standing by.

Update our viewers on what we know about this storm, Reynolds.

WOLF: All right, Wolf. The latest we have is the storm, Hurricane Gustav, now a Category 3 storm, still a major hurricane. We've seen some weakening since the overnight hours. And right now, winds still strong at 120 miles per hour. It's about 400 miles or so just from New Orleans.

It is moving to the northwest at 17 miles an hour. That is the biggest change we've seen with the storm since the earlier update. We've seen a little bit of a greater speed in its forward progress as it treks its way to the northwest.

And the latest we have from the National Hurricane Center shows the storm continuing on that northwest trajectory, expected to make landfall somewhere to the southwest, I'd say about 60 to 70 miles southwest of New Orleans.

Notice this, Wolf, a key thing right here: winds increasing to 135 miles an hour early Monday morning. What they expect is the National Hurricane Center is banking that this storm is going to move into an area of minimal sheer aloft. That's winds high aloft that can tear the storm apart. The structure is very important for the storm to retain its power.

The second thing it's going to run into, an area of water temperatures that will be into the mid- to upper 80s. That's like high-octane fuel for these huge powerhouse storms.

And we anticipate the storm will make landfall somewhere in that area, again, just at the southwest of New Orleans, sometime around noon tomorrow. It's going to bring anywhere from, say, 13 to 18 feet of storm surge, heavy rainfall, winds well in excess of 100 miles per hour.

Then the storm will begin to die out once it moves over central Louisiana. And then notice into Wednesday and into Thursday, it all but pulls -- actually, pulls up stationary, for the most part, dumping quite a bit of rain. Some places in Texas, Louisiana could see well over a foot of rainfall by the middle and the late half of next week.

A huge powerhouse, no question, Wolf.

BLITZER: Reynolds, show our viewers the projections. There have been various computer projections of where this storm will actually hit, how wide it might be. I want to put that up on the screen for our viewers.

WOLF: Absolutely. What we're talking about is -- the layman's term for this would be the spaghetti models. The reason why we call them the spaghetti models is because, plain and simple, they look like lines of spaghetti.

You'll see in the map behind me different computer models showing the current location of Gustav. And then you have computer models that show the storm possibly moving up towards Mobile, Alabama, maybe even past Dauphin Island, or maybe even closer to Houston, not far from Texas Bay.

Now, there are two models that the National Hurricane Center watches very closely. One is called the GDFL. This other one they watch is one that we call the HWRF.

Well, those two models, they look at both of those. Those are the ones that -- they're usually the most reliable models.

And then they use their own expertise. And these guys are the very best in the business. And they indicate the storm, or at least they think, that the storm will move its way, as I mentioned, just to the southwest of Louisiana.

The thing is, though, Wolf, these storms are very hard, very difficult to follow. The storms -- remember, rotating storms, on a rotating planet, spinning over choppy water. You've got all kinds of winds aloft that can push the storm in a different direction, many variables that can change the storm minute by minute, hour by hour.

And it's something you have to watch very carefully, no question.

BLITZER: Reynolds, stand by. We're going to be getting back to you.

Susie Roesgen is on the scene in New Orleans. But before we go to her, John King is getting some new information -- Susie, stand by for a moment -- new information about this convention and the impact from Hurricane Gustav.

KING: White House press secretary Dana Perino, Wolf, just a few moments ago has now officially confirmed that neither the president nor the vice president will come here for the convention.

Both President Bush and Vice President Cheney, we are told now, will stay in Washington or perhaps go to places affected by the storm. But because of Hurricane Gustav, they have made the decision now that they will not come.

The president and vice president, obviously, were on the program Monday night, the opening night of the convention. The White House says, as of now, First Lady Laura Bush still plans to attend.

But as we discussed a bit earlier, they will have an announcement in an hour, maybe two hours from now -- they're in meetings this morning finalizing it -- on dramatic changes to the convention program. And there's a possibility this convention could be delayed or they could even squeeze it down and try to do all the official business in one day or so.

They're watching what Reynolds Wolf was just reporting. They're watching the track of the storm, the strength of the storm, before they make the final decisions. And there's so much anguish among the planners, the people who have spent months and years planning this gathering.

But they understand, because of the severity of this storm, they can't have a big political party. Exactly the changes we'll know soon, but we're beginning to see the evidence of it now with the official word that neither the president nor the vice president will come. BLITZER: And it's potentially possible they could -- if there is a convention at all, they could address the convention via satellite.

KING: They could. The plan for the president, if there is a convention, is to address via satellite. We don't have a backup plan for the vice president just yet.

But the theme of this convention was supposed to be service anyway. Now they're making dramatic plans about maybe trying to raise money, maybe trying to -- you know, take a blood drive. What can they do to help the people affected by this storm, as opposed to having a big political party?

But, again, the rules require them to nominate John McCain. John McCain -- they have to do the official business. I was just told a few minutes ago they could, in a worst-case scenario, do that in about two hours.

BLITZER: And they have to nominate the vice presidential nominee, as well, Sarah Palin, the governor of Alaska.

Stand by. We're going to talk about all of this fallout. Former Senator Fred Thompson is here. Gloria is here with us, as well.

But I want to go to New Orleans right now. Susie Roesgen is on the scene for us.

You've lived there for some time. You no longer live there, but you know this story about as well as anyone.

Susie, set the scene for us right now. Is New Orleans evacuated? Have thousands of people already left? Are more leaving right now?

SUSAN ROESGEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Oh, absolutely, Wolf, so many more than during Katrina and so much earlier. Many people got out on city buses. They got out on Amtrak trains. The famous city of New Orleans has been taking people out of this city.

People who have their own transportation are getting out. I think the city is going to be very empty within the next few hours, except for the hospitals. There are a few hospitals, Wolf -- and I'm in front of one of them, Children's Hospital.

Behind me, there are 80 patients, 80 child patients in here, 47 of whom are in critical care units. They're not going anywhere. They might not survive a rushed evacuation.

So the doctors and nurses here, many of them, have volunteered to stay behind. They say they've got 70,000 gallons of diesel fuel, enough to power generators here for three weeks. They're ready. They believe that they're going to be safe.

They're going to have a contingent of police officers and firemen. There are also other hospitals, a few others around the city, that are going to stay open. Wolf, if they have to get out of here, which could be the case -- you never know -- let me show you what they have over here, something they did not have in Hurricane Katrina. Since then, they have built a second floor helipad, and that's the way they'll get these patients out of here, if they have to.

But right now they think they can withstand it. Everybody else in this city, Wolf, gets the message. Get out. Don't try to ride it out.

BLITZER: And what about those people who have pets? We remember the thousands, tens of thousands who refused to leave the last time. They didn't want to leave their cats or their dogs behind. What are the -- what are the authorities doing about that situation right now?

ROESGEN: Well, you know, Wolf, you'd have to be a pet owner to understand. This is like children to many people. Their pets are like their children.

So, yes, the city this time around started evacuating people with their pets first, got them on some of those buses, got them to shelters in the northern part of the state, so the city is trying to do everything to stop any possible excuse, including, Wolf, there was looting last time.

People were afraid to leave their homes because they said, "We don't want our homes to be looted," and there was that. This time around, a contingent of 3,000 national guardsmen here protecting the city. So there's no excuse this time. Everyone needs to get out.

BLITZER: Susie Roesgen is on the scene for us. We have a whole team of reporters, our intrepid, very courageous reporters who are on the scene. They're getting ready for this. Anderson Cooper is there, as well. We're going to check in with all of them. Stand by for that.

And Mayor Ray Nagin of New Orleans, he's getting ready for a news conference to update us on what's happening in that city. This is virtually almost exactly three years since Hurricane Katrina, and now New Orleans once again in the bull's eye of a major hurricane, a hurricane, Category 3 right now, but that could go up to a Category 4 or even a Category 5.

We'll continue our coverage of this hurricane, the impact on this Republican convention, and much more. This is a special "Late Edition." We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to St. Paul, Minnesota. We're here on the floor of the Republican National Convention. It's supposed to start tomorrow, but everything right now unclear because of Hurricane Gustav. We've just been told, and you heard John King report it here live, that both President Bush and Vice President Cheney, they've decided they are not coming here to St. Paul. They were supposed to address this convention tomorrow, but because of this monster storm that's supposed to hit early afternoon tomorrow and potentially in New Orleans itself, they are not coming, and we're waiting to see what the convention organizers are going to do.

We're standing by for a news conference. Mayor Ray Nagin in New Orleans is going to be briefing reporters on his city. On this, the third anniversary of Katrina, New Orleans once again facing another devastating storm. We'll go there live once Mayor Nagin starts speaking, but let's talk a little bit about what all of this means for the Republican National Convention and more.

Joining us is Senator Fred Thompson, the former senator from Tennessee, former Republican presidential candidate. Senator, thanks very much for joining us.

FORMER U.S. SENATOR FRED THOMPSON: Good to be with you.

BLITZER: I don't remember a time when a political convention has been postponed or consolidated, truncated because of a natural disaster like this. You've been going to these conventions for a long time. Do you remember anything like this at all?

THOMPSON: No, I don't. It just reminds us, I suppose, of the importance of events and the importance of things that haven't happened yet in our lives and certainly with regard to politics. And, you know, we just have to take them as they come and try to do the right thing.

You know, I'm very impressed. It looks like the evacuation is going well. State and local officials are working together. Republican and Democrats are all being responsible in what they are saying and trying to do about it. And maybe here in the midst of this most political part of the political season, we can actually focus on, you know, some important things together.

BLITZER: That would be good. I assume you agree, though, that at a time when people are fleeing their homes and there could be a huge disaster, it's no time for Republicans to be seen on this convention floor partying and hoopla and having a great time.

THOMPSON: That's absolutely correct, but there's more to it than that. There's a reality underneath the appearance, and that is that people are concerned about what's happening down there, and people have loved ones and friends, and it's a part of our country. And, you know, we don't want to be diverted from attention on to that.

KING: Have you heard anything, Senator, from the organizers about how they hope -- we know they are going to dramatically change the schedule, perhaps condensing the convention, but there's also talk of turning this into a service event, trying to take advantage, if you will, of all the people who are here and use volunteerism, fund- raising, something to help those who are affected by the storm. Still fluid, or are they starting to nail these things down?

THOMPSON: I don't know, you know, I really don't know about that. I haven't been here very long myself. I was supposed to make a little talk tomorrow night about the relevant (ph) time, and of course that -- everything is all up in the air.

Sounds like a good idea to me. I know that John McCain and Governor Palin are going down to Mississippi today, if they are not already there, and are going to be doing what they can there. I'm sure the Obama campaign is going to respond appropriately also. And, you know, we'll do the same thing here.

It's unfortunate, of course, a lot of wonderful people and good workers coming from all over the country to a great expense to come here and celebrate together. But, again, we've got to keep our priorities straight.

BORGER: Is this a particular matter of sensibility for Republicans, given the mismanagement of Hurricane Katrina?

THOMPSON: No, I don't think so. The administration received a lot of criticism last time, no question about it. So did state and local government, you know, and there's enough blame to go around there, but that's kind of all in the past now. And it has some relevance, I guess, from that standpoint, but, you know, John...

BORGER: John McCain has criticized the president's management.

THOMPSON: Well, of course. I mean, I guess my point is there's no carry-over there as far as Republicans are concerned now, because they have got a leader now who has been critical when criticism was called for, and who is always about, you know, service and sacrifice and leadership, and that's what you're seeing now in his reaction to what's happening there.

BLITZER: I suppose, Senator, you like all of us were pretty surprised at John McCain's decision to pick the Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate. Be honest.

THOMPSON: For a change?

(LAUGHTER) I was surprised and delighted. I think it was an absolute -- you know -- great thing. This -- she is the kind of person that all of us in the Beltway and outside the Beltway are always talking about that we want, you know, somebody -- an outsider, somebody who will not get sucked in by the political process, somebody who is independent, somebody who will stand up to corruption and all that kind of thing. Well, guess what, that's exactly what you got.

BLITZER: But the criticism...

THOMPSON: And in many cases, she is a mirror of John McCain in that regard.

BLITZER: The criticism is those are all excellent attributes that she has, but she has limited experience, a governor for less than two years, and really no national security or foreign policy experience.

THOMPSON: Well, Wolf, I hate to break this to you, but you don't get national security experience by being on Sunday talk shows, and that's where a lot of these fellows get theirs. And you don't get national security experience from sitting on the floor of the Senate or the House and listening to what goes on there.

The fact of the matter is, she's been in -- so some of those who claim it really don't have much either. She's been in public service for about 13 years now, state and local government. She is a reformer. She has experience not only in politics but in life. She's a mother of five children, and from an infant to a young man going into the military. And she has more experience than Barack Obama.

So I think as long as we can continue to compare her experience with the presidential nominee of the Democrats, we're going to be in pretty good shape.

BLITZER: Go ahead.

BORGER: What do you say to those voters who are concerned about John McCain's age -- he's 72 years old -- and who wonder whether not that she has the executive experience, but whether she could be commander in chief?

THOMPSON: Well, John's age, if you ever tried to keep up, I'm sure you have...

BORGER: I have.

THOMPSON: ... tried to keep up with John McCain. Everybody ought to try to keep up with John McCain. You know, I used to go on these codels with him, and...

BLITZER: Those are congressional delegates, for the outside-the- Beltway crowd.

(LAUGHTER) THOMPSON: Yes. And you know, he's kind of a two countries a day guy. And I think his 96-year-old mother will be here at the convention, so I'm not worried about John McCain.

But, again, are we comparing the qualifications and experience of our vice presidential nominee with the Democrats' presidential nominee. I mean, does eloquence make up for his lack of experience? I don't think so.

BLITZER: I think we understand what you're trying to say, Senator. Thanks very much for coming in.

THOMPSON: Thanks a lot.

BLITZER: All right, we're going to take another quick break, but we're following Hurricane Gustav right now. It's moving through the Gulf of Mexico, and guess what? It's heading towards New Orleans. We'll have a complete update.

We'll also get a very different perspective from what we just heard from Senator Thompson. Senator Chris Dodd, the Democratic senator from Connecticut, he's standing by live. Our continuing coverage will resume right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: And welcome back to the floor of the Republican National Convention here at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minnesota. We're waiting for word on whether or not there will be a convention. It's supposed to go on for four days beginning tomorrow but already we've heard that both President Bush and Vice President Cheney will not, repeat, not be attending because of Hurricane Gustav, a monster storm moving through the Gulf of Mexico right now with New Orleans right in the bull's eye, and that's having enormous ramifications on what's going on here but much more important on the lives of so many people along the Gulf Coast of the United States.

Let's bring in Senator Chris Dodd. He's joining us now live from Washington. Senator Dodd is a Democratic senator, former Democratic presidential candidate.

Thanks very much for coming in. What do you think the Republicans -- just as an outsider, you're a Democrat, what would be appropriate for them to do right now?

SEN. CHRISTOPHER J. DODD, D-CONN.: Well, listen, Wolf, there's no doubt in my mind what's going on here. Had this -- the Bush administration not let this city drown basically three years ago, we wouldn't even be talking about this.

It's a major storm coming through obviously and a lot of concern about it, but it was the failure of the Bush administration's actions three years ago that are creating all of this conversation, including the discussion about canceling or modifying the convention.

So clearly that's what's going on here and it's a reminder at a time when, again, we're talking about leadership in the country, talking about a new direction for our nation, change in the country, that the Republican ticket here is one that really causes a lot of concern for people because this candidate has said over and over again he wants to have four more years like the eight years of the Bush administration.

And candidly, that's one of the marks of that administration, of course, was the total failure to respond to a major American city in trouble.

BLITZER: All right. I'm going to get to the political story in a moment, but based on everything you know, is the federal government right now, FEMA, the Department of Homeland Security, are they ready to deal with state and local authorities in Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, wherever this hurricane hits? Have they learned the lessons of Katrina?

DODD: Well, I can only hope so, Wolf. But again, there has been a lot of stories since then. Now we've got new leadership at FEMA, and my only prayer and hope would be that they are doing exactly what they should have been doing three years ago.

And so that's my concern at this particular moment. Glad to see there's a lot of concern about this in action, but I'll repeat what I said to you a moment ago. Don't have any illusions about this. Had they not failed miserably three years ago in dealing with Katrina, we wouldn't be having this conversation today.

BLITZER: John King is here, and Gloria Borger, they're here. They're joining me in the questioning -- John.

KING: Senator, I want to jump in on that point, you honestly believe that John McCain, a man you know well -- I know you disagree with him, that he would have a four-day political party, a balloon drop, a "so what, I don't care" convention had Katrina not happened, even with Gustav bearing down on the coast of the United States and another tropical storm, Hanna, potentially following behind it?

He would do it anyway and just have a party, you honestly believe that?

DODD: Well, I think this clearly, and John was critical of the Bush administration, but there's a concern about whether or not this administration, the Bush administration, one whose policies he has endorsed, will handle this appropriately.

If there was a lot of confidence that those in authority today would respond to this as they should have, then frankly I think the convention would go on. There would be concerns about it, they would be talking about it, John, but they wouldn't be talking about canceling a convention.

BORGER: Well, Senator Dodd, if this were your convention, what would you do?

DODD: Well, again, I think you'd have appropriate people down there...

BLITZER: All right. Hold on. Senator Dodd, hold on a second. The mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin, is just starting to speak. I want to listen in to hear what he's saying. Listen to this.

MAYOR RAY NAGIN (D) NEW ORLEANS: All right. We ready? Everybody good?

Good morning, everyone. We're here for the latest update from the city of New Orleans as it relates to the latest threat of Hurricane Gustav. I want to start by talking to you about the city- assisted emergency plan that we've been implementing for the past couple of days. We're now up to about 14,000 or 15,000 people that we have moved through the system and gotten out of town. Interesting enough, last night from midnight to 5:00 a.m., we worked all night, we moved 392 people and 36 people who were wheelchair- bound.

I would like to publicly thank RTA, the employees from RTA who have been doing an incredible job of staying on the job and moving our citizens out of harm's way.

As you know, we are planning to stop pickups at the 17 or the 15 pickup sites at noon today. That's our official stop time. But let me assure the public that we will continue with limited bus service. It won't be as frequent, as many as before, and we're going to try and continue that service until about 2:00 or 3:00 this afternoon.

Let me repeat. The official stop time is noon today for city- assisted plan, but we're going to continue to service until 2:00 or 3:00 this afternoon to try and accommodate any late people who are coming.

And I want to once again thank RTA for their incredible work. Let me get to the storm. The storm, as most of you know, is still headed our way. Nothing has changed as far as we can tell from the direction of the storm.

It's a Cat. 3 right now, Category 3, but everyone that we have talked to in the latest update still say that this storm is going to be extremely powerful as a Category 4 storm, with winds of 150 miles an hour, sometimes gusting much higher than that.

There is a little bit of good news in that the storm is moving at a much faster pace, and a fast-moving storm is a little bit better for us, not much better, but a little bit better. It's moving at 16 miles per hour, and it's still scheduled to slightly stall off the coast of Louisiana, which is not necessarily the best of news for us.

One other threat tonight, since we're on the wrong side, if you will, of the storm, we should start to see tornado threats starting tonight and in the morning, which is something that we're going to have to really watch and pay attention to.

So this is still a big ugly storm. It's still strong. And I strongly urge everyone to leave. On the contraflow, the contraflow is in effect. It started at 4:00 a.m. this morning. It's slow, but it's moving smoothly, going east is much slower.

And we must let our citizens know that if you're going out I-10 east towards Mississippi, you will have to get off of I-10 and use 59 north when you get past Mississippi. I-10 east going towards Mississippi, once you get to a certain point, you will have to change to 59 north. So I'm going to make sure that everyone understands that.

As it relates to mandatory evacuation, our mandatory evacuation went into effect this morning at 8:00 a.m. for the west bank, which is the area that the storm is still pointing towards to have the most impact, so we wanted to give our citizens time on the west bank to get out of town.

We would then move to a noon mandatory evacuation on the east bank, 8:00 a.m. for the west bank and noon for the east bank.

Everyone who evacuates, we will try and get you back in the city as soon as it's safe to come back. Whether you went out on a bus, a train, or a plane, whether you drove yourself out, we're going to try and get you back.

I am asking the city council -- I am strongly asking the city council to go with my key staff members -- and I'm only going to keep a very small skeleton crew here, because of the severity of this storm, to set up what we're calling continuity of government.

We don't know what's going to happen here in New Orleans, so I'm asking the city council to go with certain key staff members to set up a governmental station in Baton Rouge, so we can pass ordinances and government continue -- can continue to function.

The next big announcement for today is that I want to announce that we have already filed with the clerk of court that we will be implementing this afternoon a curfew, a dusk-to-dawn curfew that will take into effect this afternoon starting at sunset. And we will continue that until the storm threat is open. We will start a curfew to this afternoon, once the sun sets.

On one other point I'd like to make before I turn it over to the council president, I have two more points. On the trailers, I want to thank all of our citizens who have heeded our warning to get out of those trailers.

We have done some sweeps around the city. And we can find -- and we find, fortunately, that most people have moved out of those trailers.

But I want to talk to any citizen that is thinking of staying in the city, and they may have a home that is next to or near a trailer. Those trailers are on cinder blocks and, you know, what have you. They are only wind-rated to 35, 40 miles an hour.

When this storm hits, those trailers will move around quite a bit. As a matter of fact, most some of them will become projectiles and will start to fly around the city. So be very careful if you decide to stay in the city and you're near a travel trailer, because they will be moving around in the city.

Let me reiterate: Our call is for you to evacuate now. It's a mandatory evacuation for the west bank that started at 8 a.m. And for the east bank, we will be implementing a curfew at dusk this afternoon. The tropical storm is -- I mean, the hurricane is still severe and growing stronger, and it's scheduled to hit us as a Category 4 storm. Tropical storm-force winds could arrive in New Orleans as early as daybreak on Monday.

And then, finally, I just talked to the sheriff and to the police chief. I just want to send a strong message out to anybody who's thinking about lingering around and becoming a looter. Looting will not be tolerated.

We have doubled the police force, doubled the National Guard force that we had for Katrina, and looters will go directly to jail. You will not get out -- you will not get a pass this time.

As a matter of fact, anybody who is caught looting in the city of New Orleans will go directly to Angola, directly to Angola. You will not have a temporary stay in the city. You'll go directly to the big house in general population, all right?

So I want to make sure that every looter, potential looter, understands that. You will go directly to Angola prison. And God bless you when you go there.

I'm going to turn it over to Council President Jackie Clarkson.

JACKIE CLARKSON, NEW ORLEANS CITY COUNCIL PRESIDENT: Thank you, Mr. Mayor. And thank you...

BLITZER: All right, so there it is, strong words from the mayor. If you are caught looting in New Orleans, you're going to go to that prison at Angola. He also announced there will be a dusk-to-dawn curfew, mandatory evacuations. Thousands of people are fleeing the Gulf Coast right now.

Hurricane Gustav, right now it's a Category 3 storm, but it could intensify to a Category 4, maybe even a Category 5 storm. And it's potentially devastating, especially now as it takes direct aim on New Orleans, on this, the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

We were talking with Senator Chris Dodd, the Democratic senator from Connecticut, the former Democratic presidential candidate.

You hear those words, Senator Dodd, from the mayor of New Orleans, whose community was so devastated only three years ago, it's hard to believe that this community could be further devastated now on the third anniversary of Katrina. Just give us your thoughts on the chances of this happening.

DODD: Well, Wolf, if you'd written this up in a novel, no publisher would have taken it. This is too -- it's too bizarre to even suggest somehow that this could happen.

And I, having traveled down there shortly after Katrina, and traveled that coast, from New Orleans all the way down to Mobile, it was unbelievable. Mississippi, I mean, all of that area, it's hard to imagine. I know people talked about it, and certainly CNN reported widely what had happened, but even the images of it are hard to portray the actual reality of it.

So clearly the mayor -- and I commend him for it, the steps he's taking, the announcements he's making, certainly much better preparation now than was the case three years ago. And we applaud them for that.

But the point, again, that we have to come back to here, you're sitting at a convention. Clearly, they're going to have to make decisions about whether or not to go forward.

But, again, the point I want to make to you here, since we are talking about a political campaign with about 65 days to go, is the Republican nominee is one that has endorsed George Bush's overall policies.

Now, he was critical of the handling of Katrina, as virtually everyone was at the time. But it seems to me it's important to remember Katrina symbolizes the failure of the Bush administration to respond to a major crisis in our country. And that's a point here that should not be forgotten at this hour.

BLITZER: Hold on one second, Senator. We only have time for one more question, and I want you to respond to what Senator Fred Thompson, the former U.S. senator from Tennessee, said, himself a former Republican presidential candidate, that the vice presidential running mate for John McCain, the Alaska governor, Governor Sarah Palin, has more executive experience than the top of the Democratic ticket, Senator Barack Obama.

DODD: Well, it's a ridiculous -- of course, Fred is my good friend, and he does a great job on "Law and Order," and he's a great prosecutor. But I think of Elizabeth Dole, I think of Jodi Rell, the governor of Connecticut, I think of Kay Bailey Hutchison, I think of Susan Collins, Olympia Snowe.

I can recite off the top of my head a number of Republican candidates, women who were far more qualified, with all due respect to Sarah Palin.

So, again, John has made a choice here, but the suggestion somehow this is a wise choice -- this is the choice of Dobson, Robertson, and Limbaugh. This is a -- this is a real sop to the extreme conservative elements of the Republican Party.

John McCain's knees buckled, because he was fearful of what the extreme right was going to say about this ticket. That's what this comes down to.

BLITZER: Senator Dodd, thanks very much for joining us.

DODD: Thank you very much, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Senator Chris Dodd from Connecticut. We're standing by for another update on Hurricane Gustav. It's heading directly towards New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. We'll update you on that. Much more of our coverage from the Republican National Convention, which right now is really up in the air because of Gustav, we'll continue right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back. We're here on the floor of the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota. This is a special "Late Edition."

This convention was supposed to start tomorrow, but it could be in free fall right now, given what's happening along the Gulf Coast. They're preparing for landfall around midday tomorrow early afternoon, and New Orleans right now in the bull's eye.

John King and Gloria Borger are here with me.

John, we heard two very different assessments from Senator Chris Dodd, the Democrat, former Senator Fred Thompson, the Republican. You know, as much as people would like to say politics is going to go away because of a natural disaster like this, politics very much going to be -- especially in this political season, going to be with us.

KING: And Senator Dodd seeing an opportunity there to make the Democratic case that the Republicans are canceling, changing, modifying their convention because of the hangover from Katrina, if you will.

And there's no doubt about it that Americans remember Katrina, and they remember and they have blamed the Bush administration, state and local officials, as well, but the president runs the country, and the president took a lot of blame for that. And there's no question that fallout continues.

However, I do think it is fair to say that John McCain would have modified somewhat had Katrina never happened in the first place, just because they do understand, all the people around him, that you can't be having a party and a balloon drop if a major American city, New Orleans or somewhere else, is underwater.

BLITZER: I think that's a fair assessment.

What do you think?

BORGER: Sure. And I think, in many ways, the Republicans can look at this as an opportunity, if they want to be crassly political about it, to show that the theme of this convention, which John was talking about earlier, which is service, can actually be worked on publicly.

If you want to hold a telethon, if you want to donate to Red Cross, if you want to send people from the convention to the Gulf Coast, I mean, there are -- there are all kinds of things the Republicans can do at this convention to show that John McCain and Sarah Palin care and would manage a hurricane very differently from the way George W. Bush managed Katrina.

KING: And that will happen. There will be -- there will be a component of service. We still don't know about the schedule. I'm told there will be dramatic changes announced probably in an hour or so, but we do know the convention planners have already been in touch with the Red Cross. They're going to definitely raise money and have other service components using the delegates who are here to get them involved in the effort.

John McCain is down there today. Some of the other stuff is still in a flux, because it's a very difficult decision. But we do -- one thing they -- by rules, they have to nominate a candidate. They will do that. Everything else I'm told is in flux, because they're trying to get the latest on the storm.

BLITZER: And we do know that the president of the United States and the vice president of the United States, both of them have decided they're not coming here tomorrow. They were both supposed to address this convention tomorrow, but George Bush and Dick Cheney have decided they're not coming here.

We'll take another quick break. Much more of our coverage on this special "Late Edition" right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: We're here at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minnesota. This is where the Republicans were supposed -- they're scheduled to hold a convention for four days beginning tomorrow. But as we've been reporting, everything up in the air right now.

Only within the last half hour or so ago, we learned that both President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney will not be attending this convention. They were supposed to be here tomorrow.

Let's assess what's going on, as Hurricane Gustav moves towards New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.

Joining us now is Tara Wall, the editorial page editor of the Washington Times, and Roland Martin. Both are CNN contributors.

Tara, what should the Republicans do as far as this convention is concerned?

TARA WALL, WASHINGTON TIMES: Well, I trust they'll do the right thing. They'll use their judgment to make the calls that are necessary and that are needed.

I will -- I would anticipate probably a more truncated schedule, if you will. I think that already you've seen these schedules pared back quite a bit.

So I would expect to see quite a bit and that the Republicans and John McCain will make the right decision in deciding how to go forward.

BLITZER: I assume you agree, right, Roland?

ROLAND MARTIN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: No, I would say that they nominate John McCain tomorrow and shut the convention down. And if this hurricane hits on Tuesday and it brings the level of devastation that we're likely to see, there's not going to be any media coverage of this convention.

And so any kind of advantage you want to get out of it, frankly, you're not going to get. And so it doesn't make any sense to pare anything down. You nominate John McCain, and you shut it down, because there will be nothing to talk about, frankly, come Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday.

BLITZER: Because the hurricane, Roland, is supposed to hit early afternoon tomorrow. Monday, at least right now, it's projected to hit around New Orleans, maybe between noon or 1 o'clock local time, Central time.

So what you're saying is, is even though the -- even though it hits, go ahead, do the formal business of nominating a presidential candidate and a vice presidential candidate, and then get out of Dodge.

Is that a good -- a good piece of advice, Tara? WALL: Well, I think, again, you're already seeing some of that. I mean, of course, President Bush is not coming. Vice President Cheney is not coming. You see, of course, the three governors aren't coming. All these people played a major role in this convention. They won't be there.

So, again, it probably, yes, will likely be a more truncated convention. Whether that's one days, two days, I think, again, that's the -- they'll figure out what the responsible thing is to do to make sure they're dealing with the issue at hand, as well as dealing with the business of their party and the nominee.

So I expect perhaps that could be a one- to two-day convention. But, again, I mean, it's not my call, so...

BLITZER: Right. It's not any of our call. We're all waiting and hopefully in the next hour or two we'll get the word from these organizers of the Republican convention what they plan on doing.

Let me ask both of you, because I haven't spoken to you since John McCain announced that the Alaska governor, Sarah Palin, would be his running mate.

Tara, first to you. Good choice, bad choice, what do you think?

WALL: I've got to tell you, it was a proud day for me as a black woman and American last week, with the first black nominee of any major party and the first woman of the Republican Party as a major nominee, second in history, so I'm proud all around on that end.

And I think, quite frankly, I was skeptical from the beginning when I heard about her name a few months ago. When you read the woman's record, experience or not, the experience that she does have is pretty impressive.

And I've heard from conservatives all weekend they are re- energized and fired up about this candidate. Say what you will, the conservative base is fired up about her.

MARTIN: Hey, Wolf...

BLITZER: Roland, Roland -- hold on, Roland -- a proud day for you, too?

MARTIN: Not necessarily, because -- I mean, first of all, what I find to be interesting is, I mean, as a native Texan, you know, I hate the fact that Kay Bailey Hutchison didn't get the job, because she's far more qualified than the Alaska governor.

But, also, as an Evangelical -- and John King knows it, because he's (inaudible) election -- I mean, Mike Huckabee was the best choice. Here's a guy who was the governor of Arkansas for 11 years, an ordained minister, who won the Iowa caucus. Right now, McCain is behind in Iowa.

MARTIN: If you want to galvanize grassroots evangelicals... WALL: But he -- no, he had issues...

(CROSSTALK)

MARTIN: Tara, Tara, one second.

WALL: He had issues with fiscal conservatives.

MARTIN: Tara, one second. If you want to galvanize grassroots evangelicals, you go after the guy who won the Iowa Caucus where you're down right now. So, I'm sorry, I think he's a much better pick than she is.

WALL: Well, she covers all of those. She is evangelical, she is a Christian, she is a reformer, she is very conservative, she has bucked her own...

MARTIN: She's unproven.

WALL: She has bucked her own party. She is absolutely not unproven, when you go and you look at her record and what she has fought up against and what she has fought for. The short time in office that she has had, she has fought against -- she has fought against the government, she has fought against her own party, she has cut her own salary. The woman has...

MARTIN: Who delivered the evangelicals in the primary?

WALL: And she...

MARTIN: Who delivered them? Huckabee did.

WALL: And she is staunchly pro-life. Not to take away anything from Mike Huckabee...

MARTIN: So was Huckabee!

WALL: ...but some of the problems Huckabee had was with fiscal conservatives. And those are some of the problems that he posed. Look, there are a number of...

BLITZER: All right. Guys...

WALL: ...great candidates, but I think when you're looking at someone outside of Washington, the folks that talk about the change, this is the real kind of...

MARTIN: Huckabee is from Arkansas.

WALL: ... outside of Washington change that folks are talking about.

MARTIN: Huckabee is from Arkansas.

BLITZER: All right. Roland, hold your fire. Hold your fire, Roland, because I know you're anxious to respond, but we're going to have plenty of time to talk about Sarah Palin and John McCain and Barack Obama and Joe Biden.

Stand by. Much more of our coverage coming up here. We're at the Republican National Convention, but Hurricane Gustav continues to move towards New Orleans in the Gulf Coast. We'll update you on what we know right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: You just heard live here on CNN, the mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin, announce that there's a dawn-to-dusk curfew in New Orleans starting tonight and that looters will immediately go to a prison. No holding places or anything like that. They go to jail right away. They're having enormous, enormous preparations under way along the Gulf Coast. We're watching this.

But I want to go down to the floor of this convention, which may or may not take place starting tomorrow. Ed Henry is on the floor for us right now.

What are you hearing, Ed, from where you are? Because it seems everything is up in the air.

ED HENRY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. And everyone you talk to who is just filtering in to St. Paul, all of these Republicans who have been planning this for almost two years now are wondering, they're asking us what's going on.

The latest is, everyone is behind the scenes basically on conference calls, talking to one another. As you mentioned earlier, as John King did, Rick Davis, the campaign chairman, is trying to reach out to Republicans, figure out the best way to handle this. This is an unprecedented situation.

But Republicans realize that in the middle of this, what could be a catastrophic storm, they can't possibly show the American people images of them partying, having a good time, launching political attacks.

So they want to find the right balance at this point. So what obviously seems likely is somehow shrinking it, somehow getting all of the business into a smaller amount of time without canceling the whole thing together.

But obviously everything is on the table right now, but as John has been saying, you have to at the very least nominate John McCain as well as Sarah Palin. And let's face it, in fairness to John McCain, he has to get some time in the spotlight at some point this week.

Barack Obama just had his hour in prime time. The Democrats had a full week to make their case to the American people. So the Republicans are just trying to find a balancing act -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Jessica Yellin is on the floor as well.

Jessica, thousands of Republicans are coming in, delegates, supporters, family members, friends. They're coming in. There's one thought of maybe turning this into some public service, a fund-raiser for the people who are going to -- about to be devastated along the Gulf Coast.

You've been speaking with delegate delegates, what are you hearing?

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, they know that the theme of the convention is "service first." And it seems to them a fitting way to take care of both honoring what this convention is about and also acknowledging what's going on in the Gulf Coast.

I think delegates here who are just beginning to arrive are perfectly amenable to that option and there is some anxiety that they wouldn't want to be seen partying, in essence, while this is going on in the Gulf.

So the idea is to whip out cell phones, to make care packages, whatever it takes to acknowledge the Gulf Coast.

BLITZER: Jessica, stand by. Ed Henry, stand by. We're going to continue our coverage, give you an update on Hurricane Gustav and a lot more coming up right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: These are aerial photos just coming in to CNN right now from New Orleans. If you get closer -- and we're going to show our viewers some closer shots -- it looks almost eerie what's going on in New Orleans, as thousands, tens of thousands of people have been forced to evacuate.

We've seen long lines of cars heading north, getting out of the city. There's a mandatory evacuation. The mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin, just announcing a dusk-to-dawn curfew starting tonight.

And anyone caught looting, anyone, he says, caught looting, there will be no pity at all. They go right to Angola. That's an -- that's an awful prison in Louisiana. And he says they'll be sent right into the general prison population. Trust me. You don't want to be there, so don't start looting in New Orleans.

These are long gas lines you're seeing from these aerial photos. As vehicles try to get out of the city, they need gas. And there are long lines, as well.

You can see what's going on, people getting out of town as quickly as they possibly can. They're taking no chances on this, the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer.

We're reporting here from the Republican National Convention. We're on the floor of this convention, which was supposed to start tomorrow and continue for four days, but it doesn't look like that's going to happen. Everything right now is up in the air. The White House has just announced that both President Bush and Vice President Cheney will not be coming to St. Paul, Minnesota, tomorrow. They were both scheduled to address this convention tomorrow, but both will remain either in Washington or head over to the Gulf Coast to be in charge of this hurricane disaster.

Let's get an update from Reynolds Wolf. He's at the CNN Weather Center.

Reynolds, only a little while ago, the National Hurricane Center gave us an update. Tell our viewers who may be just be joining us in the United States and around the world what we know about Gustav. WOLF: OK, Wolf. Here's the latest.

The latest we have for you, the storm currently is winds sustained -- maximum sustained winds of 120 miles per hour. It's got some gusts, though, that have been much stronger, going to 150, moving to the northwest at 17 miles an hour.

That is the biggest change we've seen so far in the forecast, is the forward progress, moving to the northwest, I mentioned, going from 16 to 17 miles an hour. That could make a tremendous difference when this storm makes landfall.

Right now, the center is about 414 miles away from New Orleans. Here's the center; here's New Orleans. The latest path we have from the National Hurricane Center shows the storm still moving on that track, going to the northwest.

As it moves to the northwest, it is expected, at least in the forecast from the National Hurricane Center, to strengthen quite a bit, going from a Category 3 storm to a Category 4, with maximum sustained winds around 135 miles an hour early into Monday, and then making landfall just to the southwest of New Orleans, possibly within 70 miles of the city, then moving in to parts of central Louisiana, and then back into Texas and Louisiana.

Now, one thing to mention with this, Wolf, is that you have this -- this cone of probability, of uncertainty, if you will. The storm could still move a little bit more to the east, perhaps push back to the west. Many changes can take place in the storm, and we have to watch it very carefully.

Something else we'd like to share with you and the viewers, some numbers that we've got from FEMA. You'll notice these are numbers that we have from a program from FEMA called HAZUS that gives us an estimation of what is in the path of the storm and what might be affected.

Roughly 5.6 million people in the path of this storm. Roughly 2 million buildings could see an estimated damage in excess of $26.7 billion. Also in the path, 217 hospitals, 722 police stations.

Now, to give you an idea, a meteorological sense of what this storm can bring, remember, if it is a Category 4 storm, or at least a strong 3, we could have a storm surge that could be in excess of anywhere from, say, 13 to 18 feet, that on top of the high tides you might have on the southern coast of Louisiana. And, of course, that water could really pile up in places like Lake Pontchartrain.

Small residences, mobile homes could be completely destroyed in a storm like this, large trees blown down, knocking down power lines, widespread power outages certainly a possibility. Terrain lower than 10 feet above sea level may flood, requiring massive evacuations.

And you'll remember that much of Louisiana is built below sea level. It's kind of in a bowl, if you will. So with a storm of this magnitude, I would say flooding is definitely going to be a certainty, not just in places like New Orleans, Wolf, but when this storm begins to stall out, especially in parts of northern Louisiana and into Texas, we're going to be talking about widespread flooding, massive flooding well into next week, possibly into Wednesday, Thursday, maybe even next weekend.

Back to you.

BLITZER: And, Reynolds, when you say the -- the landfall could be about 70 miles southwest of New Orleans, the point has to be made -- and I want you to underscore it -- that, if you're on the east side of that landfall, that's potentially the most dangerous part.

We heard the mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin, said they're on the bad side of this hurricane. Explain what he means.

WOLF: What he means by that is that, on the right-hand side of the storm, you happen to have the biggest weight of, say, the power of the storm. The storm, Wolf, is spinning in a counterclockwise motion.

Imagine, viewers at home, you're looking at my back. If I'm a heavyweight boxer, and I'm a right-handed guy, and I've got a really strong right hook, well, my hook is going to be strongest going in this direction.

So you have that counterclockwise flow, the sheer weight of the water, the wind, the rain, all going around the center of circulation. Places like Pensacola, Mobile, New Orleans, especially New Orleans would tax the sheer brunt of this storm.

Now, if you'll remember, in Katrina, Katrina was actually a Category 3 when it made landfall and it was just to the east of New Orleans. It actually made landfall in parts of Mississippi.

So New Orleans actually got -- was affected by the weakest part of the storm. This scenario, should it follow out by the National Hurricane Center, it will be the opposite, the storm really affecting -- the strongest part of the storm affecting New Orleans. And that is what Mayor Nagin was referring to.

BLITZER: Because he's really worried that, as bad as Katrina was, this one could be even worse. Fortunately, it looks like everyone has learned a lot of lessons from Katrina and they've got their act together. We can only hope that the federal, state, and local authorities are really doing what they need to be doing to save lives right now.

All right, stand by. We're going to come back to Reynolds, because he's constantly getting updates.

I want to go to New Orleans right now. Susie Roesgen is there for us.

Set the scene. When we heard the mayor earlier -- and we're hoping to get him on the phone so we can ask him a few questions, Susie -- this is something that New Orleans has dreaded since Katrina. You know, who would have thought that, almost exactly three years later, it was about to happen again?

But tell us what's going on. You're there.

ROESGEN: Well, I've got to tell you, Wolf, I was here also in Hurricane Katrina. And in that time period, we would have been watching Reynolds' track go back and forth and back and forth. People were waiting, because we really felt that the storm was going to go to the east or the west of us, far enough that we wouldn't feel it.

This time, people here in New Orleans are getting out. They know what a catastrophic event Katrina was. They know that the levees failed. They don't know that they'll be safe again here. This is even a more powerful storm, so most people have gotten out.

But there are the hospitals, and there are a few hospitals, including, Wolf, the one that I'm here this morning, Children's Hospital, where they've decided to keep these hospitals open. At Children's right now, there are 80 young patients, more than half of whom are in critical care units.

And that means that it would be very difficult to evacuate those patients. It would be hard for them. So doctors and nurses have volunteered to stay here. They're going to stay and watch the young patients.

The hospital has trucked in 70,000 gallons of diesel fuel to keep the generators going. They think, Wolf, that they can withstand this and ride it out here for three weeks. And we're going to be here and see how they're doing.

If they have to, they will get the patients out by helicopter, but they're not planning to do it. They're planning to stay.

Just about everybody else in the city, Wolf, has gotten out, either by charter buses, or by the Amtrak trains, or in their own cars. They didn't even wait for the mayor to say, "Get out. This is the mother of all storms," as Mayor Nagin put it. They knew it. They got out already.

Wolf?

BLITZER: So based on your experience three years ago -- you were there during Hurricane Katrina, Susie -- and based on what you're seeing right now, I think it's fair to say that it looks like a lot of people have learned lessons and they're really paying attention, they're doing a better job right now than three years ago. Is that your assessment?

ROESGEN: Oh, absolutely. The mayor said it in his speech, but he didn't need to remind us here in New Orleans. He said, if you stay, you might be using an ax to hack your way out of the roof.

This is what thousands of people did here. They were flooded. The water forced them up, up, up. They were chopping their ways out of a roof -- out of their roofs to get out in the big flood.

So people here got the message. Some of them -- I've got to tell you, though, Wolf, and this is something we need to think about as we go forward after the hurricane -- and that's how many New Orleanians will come back.

I have talked to so many of my friends here who say, you know what, even if it doesn't hit, Wolf, even if it doesn't come here and devastate the city, as it might, they're not coming back. They say they've had it.

They've rebuilt their homes. They stuck it out. They waited for the federal money. Some of them didn't even get it. They're here now. And they say, "You know what? We can't go through this anymore. We're done."

So it will be very interesting to see what happens to this city, wherever the hurricane might go.

BLITZER: And I want you to be very, very careful, Susie Roesgen. All of our reporters and producers and camera crews, they're staying in New Orleans and in the area to make sure we get all the accurate information. Anderson Cooper is there for us, as well.

We're going to have much more coverage of what's going on with Hurricane Gustav as it moves towards New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. We're also going to have much more coverage on how it will impact what was supposed to be a Republican National Convention in St. Paul.

The Republican leader in Congress, John Boehner, he's here with us. The former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle with weigh in. Much more of our coverage right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: By the tens of thousands, they're fleeing New Orleans right now. The mayor has just declared a dusk-to-dawn curfew tonight. And he says anyone violating that curfew -- and especially anyone found looting -- immediately goes to jail.

We're here at the Republican National Convention, where the schedule is very much tentative because of Hurricane Gustav, which is moving towards New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.

John King has been doing some reporting on what we know. What we do know is that the president and the vice president, they've decided they're not coming to St. Paul.

KING: The president and the vice president are not coming. Laura Bush, the first lady, is still scheduled to be here for Monday night's opening session.

I'm told that they have made some tentative decisions, Wolf, and there will be some very complicated changes to the convention program. That's all they're willing to say right now, because while Rick Davis, the chairman of the McCain campaign, is here, he met with convention planners today, and they went through all of the contingencies, including getting an update on the path of Gustav.

John McCain is on his way to Mississippi at this hour to go down and get a look at the preparations for the storm from the Gulf Coast area. And they want to talk to him before he will make the final decisions about the implementation.

But they have reached some tentative decisions about what I'm told are very complicated changes to the convention program. We don't know exactly what they are.

We do know that the convention planners have been in touch with the Red Cross and other service organizations to try to do some things here. The delegates will be here to try to see how they can take advantage of this mass of people, if you will, and get them involved in some sort of service, fundraising and otherwise, to help those who are about to be affected by this storm.

BLITZER: So translate this disaster maybe into something good coming out of here, because it would be, I guess, unseemly to be partying and having hoopla while an American city and the Gulf Coast could be destroyed again, three years after Katrina.

KING: No doubt the tone of the convention will change significantly.

BLITZER: Obviously that has to happen.

All right, the Republican leader, the minority leader in the House of Representatives, is here, John Boehner. Nancy Pfotenhauer is here, a senior adviser to the McCain campaign. Gloria Borger is joining us in the questioning.

What do you think, Mr. Leader? What should these convention organizers, your fellow Republicans, do right now?

REP. JOHN A. BOEHNER, R-OHIO: Well, I think everyone is concerned about the people who live along the Gulf Coast. This is going to be a serious natural disaster, and I think people ought to be sensitive to this, and John McCain, especially.

John McCain's someone who's always put the country first. And, clearly, when you look at this potential disaster, putting the country first is the right thing to do.

BLITZER: So what should they do? In terms of -- you have a four-day convention that's supposed to happen. Do you truncate it into two days, one day, two hours? What do you do?

BOEHNER: There will be an announcement in several hours about how the convention will proceed and when it will proceed. Those decisions, I think, are close to being finalized (OFF-MIKE) there'll be an announcement soon. And everyone will know just how we're going to proceed with the convention.

BLITZER: Nancy, what do you think? Because, you know, you work for John McCain. He's your boss. This is a sensitive -- very sensitive issue you've got to deal with right now, because thousands of people's lives are on the line.

NANCY PFOTENHAUER, MCCAIN CAMPAIGN ADVISER: Absolutely. And that's why he's already been in touch with, obviously, Governor Barbour, but also Governors Crist, Governors Riley, Governor Jindal, just to try to get a feel for their anticipation of what will occur. And that's going to inform his decisions.

But, you know, action -- I've always said actions speak louder than words. And he's on the plane out there right now to assess the situation on the ground. And he's going to take advice from the people who are experts and who are out there. And that's going to directly impact how we spend our time over the next several days.

BORGER: All right, Congressman Boehner, I want to ask you to put on your congressional hat for a moment, because you folks in Congress spent an awful lot of time and money investigating why the levees failed and how to fix the levees. You spent about, what, $15 billion?

BOEHNER: Fifteen to twenty billion dollars.

BORGER: So what's your sense about whether the levees are going to be able to withstand whatever's coming at them?

BOEHNER: Well, you have to understand that, while the money was appropriated, only about 20 percent of the work upgrading the levees has been accomplished. This is a long process that's going to take another three, or four, or five years to raise the height of these levees.

And these are unusual levees. These wouldn't be like levees you'd see here in Minneapolis-St. Paul. Because they have to be so much higher, the width of the levees is so much wider. And so it's a massive job.

But over the next three or four years, you'll see all of those levees up. But the levees today are in better shape than they were when Katrina hit.

BORGER: Right, but it's still only one-fifth completed, you said, right?

BOEHNER: That's correct. In terms of the new designs, the new heights.

KING: If you listen to Democrats today, many of them are making the case that your tone will change more dramatically here because of the hangover, the legacy, the political damage on the Bush administration from Katrina. A fair assessment?

BOEHNER: I think everyone learned a lot from Katrina. Clearly, the federal government wasn't ready. A lot of the state governments weren't ready. And, frankly, I don't think the people in America were ready for such a horrific natural disaster.

And so I think what we see now is that we're all more sensitive. We're all more prepared for -- for what could occur. And, clearly, if you look at the precautions that are being taken today in New Orleans, they're light years ahead of what happened prior to Katrina.

BLITZER: Nancy, we heard from Senator Chris Dodd just a little while ago really saying that this decision by John McCain, your boss, to ask the Alaska governor, Sarah Palin, to be his running mate was -- you know, I'm paraphrasing now -- really bad, because he's suggesting that there were so many other Republican women, Kay Bailey Hutchison, a senator from Texas. He had a whole bunch of names who were clearly more qualified, God forbid, to become commander-in-chief than Sarah Palin.

Go ahead. Make the case why this woman, with no real national security or foreign policy experience, is ready on day one, as John McCain had said earlier, ready to become commander-in-chief.

PFOTENHAUER: I think that Governor Palin has -- she's just had a remarkable journey. She has actually challenged the status quo. She's a reformer with a record of reform, and Senator McCain respects that.

You know, it's one of those things where -- to get points on the board with John McCain, you have to prove that you're willing to do something when it's difficult and unpopular. And -- and if it's the right thing to do when it's difficult to do, then he has respect for you.

She earned his respect. And she's earned it with the people of Alaska. She's the most popular governor in the country. She's already gotten through things like a pipeline that they tried to get through for 30 years, and she's gotten it through.

BLITZER: But on a basis of one meeting he had with her earlier this year in February, she's a finalist to become his running mate?

PFOTENHAUER: Wolf, she won it on the merits. He wasn't selecting who he was going to want as a drinking buddy or a pal. He was selecting someone who has the -- who has the proven reform record to come in and help him shake up this town.

And, frankly, that's not somebody like a Joe Biden, who has spent more time in government than out.

PFOTENHAUER: I mean, Senator -- our number two on the ticket is more qualified than Barack Obama is, the number one on the Democratic ticket. And Senator Biden, I mean, they threw over change right off the side of the bathtub, if you will, with Senator Biden, because he is, if not a creature of Washington, he has spent more time in government than out.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: But in fairness -- hold on, hold on. In fairness, Senator McCain has spent, what, 26 years in Washington, so you're implicitly criticizing your boss?

PFOTENHAUER: No. What I'm -- but Senator McCain has during that period of time challenged his own party when they were wrong. He has taken on the status quo. He has worked across party lines to do things that were difficult. And we all know that, because this is our town.

(CROSSTALK)

BORGER: ... answers that commander-in-chief question, and maybe the congressman would want to take that.

BOEHNER: I just find this conversation that has gone the last two days almost appalling. And it comes from liberal Democrats who want to criticize the selection of Governor Palin. And it's almost like, if you're not a Washington insider, you don't count. You can't possibly know what it's like.

Listen, she has got more executive experience than Barack Obama and Joe Biden put together.

BORGER: Or John McCain?

BOEHNER: And when you look at the job, the job of being president or vice president, it's an administrative job. She actually has made decisions. When you're a senator, you get to decide yes or no. You get to go out and make some statements. But when you're the governor, you actually have to make decisions that have consequences.

Now -- and for them to belittle this very accomplished woman, I think is -- they're doing so at their own peril. PFOTENHAUER: I agree. I think they've been dangerously dismissive of this woman's accomplishments and I think that's going to come back to bite them.

BLITZER: All right. We're out of time for this discussion, but this discussion will continue. I have no doubt. Thanks, guys, very much for coming in. We'll get a different perspective, Tom Daschle, the former Senate majority leader, a longtime supporter of Barack Obama, he's standing by live and I'm sure he has a different assessment of what's going on.

We'll also update you on Hurricane Gustav as it's moving towards New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. Much more of our coverage. We're here at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minnesota, where there's supposed to be a Republican Convention starting tomorrow. We'll see if it will start tomorrow. Stay with us, LATE EDITION continues right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back. We're here in St. Paul, Minnesota, at the Republican National Convention, which is supposed to begin tomorrow and continue for four days, but that schedule now completely up in the air.

The president of the United States, George Bush, the vice president, Dick Cheney, they're not coming tomorrow. They had been scheduled to address this convention tomorrow. All of this because Hurricane Gustav is moving towards New Orleans and the Gulf right now.

It's supposed to make landfall early afternoon tomorrow, Monday, maybe around noon Central time, 1:00 p.m. Eastern, maybe a little bit later. It's a Category 3 monster right now, but it could go up to a Category 4, maybe even a Category 5. Winds of about maybe even 170 miles an hour.

The enormity of this, on the third anniversary of Katrina, simply unbelievable as we're watching what's going on. Stand by, we'll have a complete update on the hurricane. But we're also watching the political fallout of the race for the White House. Joining us now is the former Senate majority leader, Tom Daschle. He was an early and very robust supporter of Barack Obama. He still is.

Senator Daschle, thanks very much for coming in.

TOM DASCHLE (D), FMR. SENATE MAJORITY LEADER: My pleasure, Wolf.

BLITZER: John King and Gloria Borger are here. They're going to join me in the questioning. Just as an outside -- you're not a Republican, you have nothing to do with this convention, but what do you think the Republicans need to do right now, because potentially New Orleans and the entire Gulf Coast could be under water pretty soon?

DASCHLE: Well, Wolf, I don't think there's any choice. But the whole country needs to focus on this incredible emergency. And our thoughts and prayers go out to everybody in the path of the hurricane, especially those in New Orleans.

You know, we don't think about politics at this point as much as we think about survival. That story you had about the children, 60 children in a hospital who we know are going to have to ride through that storm in the next few days is just a phenomenal illustration of the consequences of what this is all about.

So it's almost hard to talk or think about politics or the convention when you have that much life and that much at stake.

BLITZER: We know there were horrible mistakes made three years ago in advance of Katrina and during and after Katrina by the federal government, state authorities, local government in New Orleans itself. Are you confident right now that they've learned the lessons and that they have their act together? DASCHLE: You know, I'm not confident. I sure hope they do. I hope that whatever lessons learned are applied. And you know, we're seeing indications, perhaps, that things are better and that the preparation is better and that both at the city level, the state level, and hopefully now at the federal level we're going to have our act together unlike anything we've seen before.

But three years ago it was an absolute disaster. And I think the response was almost as bad as the disaster itself. And I'm just hopeful that we've pulled our act together adequately enough to deal with this in a far more successful manner.

BLITZER: All right. I want you to respond to what we just heard from Congressman John Boehner, the minority leader in the House of Representatives, and Nancy Pfotenhauer, a senior adviser to Senator McCain's campaign, that Sarah Palin, the governor of Alaska, has more actual experience in...

(AUDIO GAP)

DASCHLE: Wolf, I...

BLITZER: Can you hear me, Senator?

DASCHLE: Oh, I lost -- now I can hear you. I just lost it for a minute.

BLITZER: All right.

DASCHLE: Sorry.

BLITZER: Let me repeat the question.

DASCHLE: OK.

BLITZER: We heard from John Boehner, the minority leader in the House of Representatives just moments ago, and Nancy Pfotenhauer, a senior adviser to John McCain's campaign, that Sarah Palin, the governor of Alaska, McCain's running mate, has more experience actually in running government than Barack Obama. DASCHLE: Well, it's actually -- the choice is somewhat mystifying to me, Wolf. It's inexplicable. John McCain, for the last year, has basically said one thing. The next president of the United States is going to have to have the ability to focus the experience and all of the resources it's going to take to be a strong person in foreign policy and make the decisions necessary to get us through this very, very difficult challenges we face.

So who does he pick? Somebody who has absolutely no experience in that regard. The only explanation to me is that he buckled, he knuckled under to the extreme right-wing pressures that he was feeling these last several weeks. That's the only real explanation I can think of.

BORGER: Well, Senator, it's Gloria. Senator, what do you say to those women though who like the idea of having a woman on the national ticket? These folks here before were saying that some of the Democrats have moved dangerously close to being sexist in their criticism of Governor Palin.

DASCHLE: This has nothing to sex, Gloria, at all, or sexual -- you know, just the fact is, you've got a lot of very strong women. Kay Bailey Hutchison's name has been mentioned several times. You know, she would have been a perfect choice.

DASCHLE: There are a lot of other Republican women who could have easily filled this role, if that's what he was looking for.

I think they have to be concerned about what message it may send about being too patronizing with regard to the transparency of this choice, as well.

So it's not the woman issue at all. I think it's -- it's really a question of, how much is John McCain going to listen to the right wing as he makes these critical decisions? And at least so far, it's pretty clear: 100 percent of the time.

KING: Senator, it's John King here. Let me talk to you about your region of the country. Barack Obama has tried to change the map, to try to put the Dakotas in play, Montana in play, Colorado, other states out in the West.

What about Sarah Palin out there, a governor who comes from the state of Alaska, who is a hunter and a sportswoman, who has a lifetime membership in the NRA? Is it possible that she could be an asset out in the West?

DASCHLE: Well, it's interesting that they're looking for assets, John, in that regard. I think what it says is that the Republicans recognize that they're in trouble in the West.

We've seen the trend over the last couple of cycles with governors, senators, and congressmen -- we have more and more on the Democratic side. I think the West is more in play than it's ever been before.

So in addition to the right-wing concerns that he might have had, I think the other issue is, do I need to shore up the West with a nominee from the West? And that may have been part of his calculation.

BLITZER: Senator Daschle, thanks very much for joining us.

DASCHLE: My pleasure, Wolf.

BLITZER: And we're going to continue our coverage here on this special "Late Edition." We'll update you on Hurricane Gustav, as it's moving through the Gulf of Mexico, moving towards New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, and continue our political coverage from this Republican convention. Right now, everything here, everything is literally up in the air. We're hearing that some announcements are going to be made fairly soon. As soon as we know what the Republicans plan on doing, we'll share it with you. Stay with us. "Late Edition" continues right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: And joining us now, the Republican governor of South Carolina, Mark Sanford, and the Republican congressman from Virginia, Eric Cantor. By all accounts, he was on the short list to be a vice presidential running mate.

Let me go to Governor Sanford first. South Carolina, as we know over the years has had to deal with its share of hurricanes. I know you're anxious to try to help if you can those folks in Louisiana, or Mississippi, or Texas that are about to be impacted by Hurricane Gustav.

What do you think? Is the federal government ready right now to deal with state and local authorities? Have they learned the lessons of Katrina?

GOV. MARK SANFORD, R-S.C.: I believe so. There was a real after-action review, both at the state level, the federal level, the local level in the wake of Katrina. And, you know, the federal government, if you want to call it that, is very much standing forward in this storm cycle. So, yes, I think that they're prepared.

I would also say, at the state level, you have what are called EMAC agreements, wherein states help other states out and cities help other cities out.

I just had a conversation this morning. The city of Charleston is already in the process of sending law enforcement folks to that part of the world, because, indeed, many hands make light work. And if that storm hits, as we suspect it will, there's going to be a lot of work to be done.

BLITZER: And I'm sure if a hurricane were moving towards South Carolina, you'd be grateful for any help you could get from your fellow governors elsewhere who could dispatch whether law enforcement or emergency medical personnel, National Guard troops, or whatever.

Eric Cantor, what do you think? I know you were planning on coming out here to St. Paul. What do you think these Republican organizers of this convention need to do now, given the enormity of what's about to happen in New Orleans and elsewhere in the gulf?

REP. ERIC CANTOR, R-VA.: Well, Wolf, it is correct. I'm about to head out in a couple of hours. Obviously, we've been told that there's going to be an announcement coming soon as to how the convention will proceed.

There's no question, though, that this will change the tone of the convention. We must and should be focused on the folks in the gulf region that are facing once again a life-threatening hurricane.

And this is a time when our country really shuns politics and wants to focus on the most important thing, which is making sure that the people of that region survive and escape this horrific storm heading for them.

BLITZER: We got some pictures -- we're just getting in some pictures of President Bush. He's been over at FEMA headquarters, and he's been speaking. We'll show some of these pictures to you.

But, Governor Sanford, I assume you were going to be leading the South Carolina delegation here in St. Paul. What are you hearing? What do you think should be done?

SANFORD: Well, I'll leave that up to, you know, those in charge on that front as to exactly what will be done, but, I mean, it's a national convention. This sort of thing happens every once four years.

And what needs to be remembered about any storm is we certainly send thoughts, we certainly send prayers. We're already in the process of sending aid.

But this is a part of a national debate that we're having, a national conversation that we're having as Americans as to what comes next come the elections in November.

And so whether it's moved back or whether it's held at, you know, the date that's planned, I don't know. But what I do know is this is part of a much larger debate that can't be disrupted at the end of the day by a storm, a tornado, a flood, you name it, because that election is going to take place come November.

BLITZER: You're saying that debate over who should be the next president of the United States...

SANFORD: Correct.

BLITZER: ... whether it should be John McCain or Barack Obama. That's a huge debate. But some say, Congressman Cantor, you know, given this natural disaster that's about to take place, maybe it would be wise for both of these parties to put politics aside, at least right now, and focus in exclusively on the human side of this hurricane.

CANTOR: You know, it's really up to John McCain. And I think that he has shown, in terms of being the head of our party going into this election, and the fact that a theme of this convention is putting country first, I know that John McCain has over a 20-year track record of doing just that.

And so there's no question in my mind that he'll make the right call as to how we're going to proceed in St. Paul. He's made the right call every step of the way during this race. And I'm confident that the same will occur this week and that the country will have its priorities straight, making sure that the people in the gulf are safe. BLITZER: What's the reaction in South Carolina among your Republican base to Senator McCain's surprise decision to pick Sarah Palin, the governor of Alaska, to be his running mate?

SANFORD: Across the board, a lot of people are elated and excited.

It's interesting. My wife was talking to a couple of girlfriends yesterday, and they were all keyed up about a woman they've never heard about, but very much loved her life story.

SANFORD: The fact that you have somebody who begins in the PTA and cares about different things, and ends up governor of Alaska and now a vice presidential nominee is an exciting story, whether from a woman's perspective or from a policy person's perspective. If you look at her track record from a standpoint of challenging the status quo, which very much needs to be challenged in a place like Washington, D.C., or from the standpoint of stewardship, actually watching out for the taxpayer dollar, I mean, I think it's telling that you had somebody that turned away a $400 million bridge to nowhere because she says that's not a good use of taxpayer resources.

BLITZER: All right. Governor, we've got to leave it right there. Governor Sanford, Congressman Cantor. The president of the United States is over at FEMA headquarters and he's been speaking there, and we're getting the tape in right now. So I want to listen to the president of the United States.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Here at FEMA headquarters, where I just received a briefing. I've also come to thank the people behind me for working the long hours that they're doing to make sure that we've got the preparations in place for Hurricane Gustav.

There has been a lot of work done to get ready for the storm. Across the Gulf Coast, there's governors and state officials and local leaders that are taking this storm very seriously and are preparing proactively.

Secretary Chertoff and FEMA Administrator Paulison report that the federal government has prepositioned teams of emergency managers, doctors, ambulances, search-and-rescue teams, aircraft and commodities throughout the region. There are millions of meals and millions of liters of water prestaged, as well as a lot of blankets and cots.

In other words, there's a lot of preparation that had gone into the anticipation of this storm.

We're working with governors to identify and secure out-of-state shelter for people in the path of the storm. Several states, including Missouri, Texas, and New Mexico are preparing to and have accepted a lot of evacuees. People are leaving those areas that are of concern, and we're working hard to make sure that they have a place to go.

The Army Corps of Engineers informs me that while the levees are stronger than they've ever been, people across the Gulf Coast, especially in New Orleans, need to understand that in a storm of this size, there is serious risk of significant flooding.

My message to the people of the Gulf Coast is this storm is dangerous. There's a real possibility of flooding, storm surge, and high winds. Therefore, it is very important for you to follow the instructions and direction of state and local officials. Do not put yourself in harm's way or make rescue workers take unnecessary risk. And know that the American people stand with you and that we'll face this emergency together.

In the coming days, I encourage people across our nation to help their neighbors in need and contribute to charities, such the Red Cross. You can volunteer your time to help those in need. And of course, you can pray for those who might be suffering.

In light of these events, I will not be going to Minnesota for the Republican National Convention. I'm going to travel down to Texas tomorrow to visit with the emergency operations center in Austin, where coordination among federal, state, and local government officials is occurring. I intend to go down to San Antonio, where state and local officials are prepositioning relief materials for Texas and Louisiana, and I'll have a chance to visit with residents of both states who have been evacuated.

I will not be traveling to Louisiana tomorrow, because I do not want my visit to impede in any way the response of our emergency personnel.

I've been talking to the governors, yesterday and today. I also spoke with Mayor Nagin of New Orleans to make sure that they're getting everything they need from the federal government to prepare for what all anticipate will be a difficult situation.

I hope to be able to get to Louisiana as soon as conditions permit.

This nation has come to know the strong and resilient spirit of the people of the Gulf Coast. They've made it through great challenges in the past and they're going to make it through this one as well. In the meantime, all those preparing for this storm are in our thoughts and our prayers from me, and Laura, and our whole nation.

Thank you very much.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And so there he is, the president of the United States at FEMA headquarters, announcing he's heading off to Texas to help monitor what's going on and will get to the scene as soon as he can. This is always a difficult proposition for a president, because on the one hand, you want to be there and see what's going on, and on the other hand, you don't want to disrupt important emergency activities that are going on.

John King is here. This is quite a contrast from three years ago, when the president was on vacation as Katrina was moving forward and he basically flew over. You remember that picture of him looking out of Air Force One, flying over Katrina. They're deliberately and anxiously taking a very aggressive, active step right now. The president canceling his trip here to St. Paul to address this convention.

KING: A very different tone and a very different assessment from all of the federal officials. That picture is actually interesting, if you go back and look at it. President Bush looked out the window. They took that picture from Air Force One. He did not want to land at that time because he thought he would take so much of the law enforcement and security personnel and be a distraction, so that picture is actually unfair.

However, the overall federal response, everybody would concede from the White House on down, was beyond disappointing. It was horrible. As was -- many people criticized state and local officials. But that picture became a metaphor for it. The picture itself was actually a smart decision by the president not to put Air Force One on the ground at a time that he would distract so much attention. But it became part of the greater narrative, which was a huge federal failure.

BLITZER: We're getting some live pictures in from New Orleans right now. We'll take another quick break and continue our coverage. Hurricane Gustav, it's moving towards New Orleans and the Gulf Coast on this, the third anniversary of Katrina. It's a powerful Category 3 monster right now. It could go up to a 4 or 5. "Late Edition" continues right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to St. Paul, where this Republican convention very much up in the air right now.

Bill Bennett, our contributor, is joining us. You're not shy. Give these Republicans, your fellow Republicans, Bill, some advice. What should they do about this four-day convention, which is supposed to begin tomorrow?

BILL BENNETT, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, be careful, because this may be a bigger hurricane than Katrina, we understand. I heard Mayor Nagin say last time, I urged you to leave, this time I'm telling you, get your butts out of town. So this is obviously very serious. And it's another opportunity, I should say, for the federal government to respond, and hopefully respond in a better way.

BENNETT: But John McCain has to be very sensitive to what the suffering might be in New Orleans, so I think the possibility of canceling a day or two days or day-and-a-half is very real.

BLITZER: We're maybe an hour away from some sort of formal announcement, is that right, John?

KING: Yes. We know they've made some tentative decisions. They want Senator McCain to sign off on them. He is on his way down to the Gulf Coast area. If I'm right, Mississippi is his first stop.

I'm told the leading proposal is to shorten the convention by a day or so. They have to gavel it into order tomorrow, or else legally they cannot nominate John McCain for president. So they will gavel the program in on Monday. They may shorten the Monday program, but they do need to convene the convention officially.

And then I'm told the leading proposal is to shorten it for a day, and a lot of people around here are being told that day would be Tuesday, when they think you'll have the most impact with the storm and then a recovery effort under way, and perhaps ask the delegates here to participate in some service to help out, pitch in in a relief effort.

But we're waiting for the final decisions. There's no doubt there will be significant changes. And it looks like we'll have a shorter official program maybe by a day, maybe by a bit more. We'll know soon.

BLITZER: The -- it's going to be shorter obviously because the president of the United States and the vice president of the United States, they're not coming here. They were supposed to both address this convention tomorrow. These are difficult decisions that these party organizers, Gloria have to make.

BORGER: Sure. Because, don't forget, this has been planned for years, no matter who the nominee was going to be. But I think everybody understands that there has to be a tonal shift.

Conventions are celebrations, they're parties, people wear silly hats and buttons and everything else. And I think, you know, when you have a crisis going on in the country, I think what John was saying, which is essentially, turn this into some kind of telethon or fund- raising opportunity, is something that is really being talked about.

BLITZER: And they might want to think about doing that not only for the 20,000 or so folks who were planning on coming here to St. Paul, but nationally, nationwide, because there is going to be a lot of need for help as a result of this...

BORGER: And you'll have coverage.

BLITZER: ...monster.

BORGER: You'll have coverage.

BLITZER: All right. Let's take another quick break and continue our coverage on the other side. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's go right to Reynolds Wolf and get an update on Hurricane Gustav as it moves through the Gulf of Mexico, towards the Gulf Coast, New Orleans, right in the bull's eye.

What do we know?

WOLF: The latest we know, Wolf, is that winds are still at 120 miles per hour, gusting to 150. It's about 400 miles from New Orleans. We've been telling you all morning long about people evacuating. And we now have word from FEMA that there have been many people that have been leaving Louisiana, going into Mississippi. And they have been clogging the roadways, pulling their FEMA trailers.

Now what FEMA would like you to do, is if you happen to have a FEMA trailer, leave it. All you need to do is get yourself, your prized possessions, and just leave the coastline. Your trailers can be replaced, your life cannot.

The storm is still expected to march its way to the west- northwest, doing so at a rate of about 17 miles an hour. It may increase in speed, Wolf, but it may also increase in power, going to Category 4 status as we get into Monday. Then at some point tomorrow, expect it to make landfall.

Right now the forecast path has it just to the southwest of New Orleans, coming onshore. And as we get into Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, the storm going from a tremendous wind storm and rainstorm, and of course the storm surge, into a big rainmaker for parts of Texas, Louisiana, where this could be a big flood threat into much of next week.

So it's going to be a tremendous story that we're going to follow here at CNN. Of course, we're your hurricane headquarters. We'll keep you up to speed with the latest information. Back to you.

BLITZER: Yes. We're not going to leave this story at all. A quick thought, Bill Bennett, what do you want to hear? What's the most important thing John McCain should be saying? We're about to hear from him pretty soon. He's in Mississippi.

BENNETT: John McCain is a guy with a right sense of mission and purpose. The whole theme of John McCain's life is live for something larger than yourself. He was bugging George Bush about this after 9/11. He was bugging George Bush about this after Katrina. And he was -- he has been doing this for years.

So I think -- I don't think there's any posturing in John McCain's standing up and saying, now it's time for all of us to pitch in. This is what his life has been.

BLITZER: Bill Bennett is going to be here with us. Gloria is here. John King is here. We're not going far away. We expect some kind of formal announcement from the RNC, from the Republican Convention here in St. Paul, Minnesota, within an hour, maybe less, maybe a little bit more. Once that happens, we'll share that with you.

If there's a news conference, we'll bring it to you live. We'll be watching all of this very closely. I'm Wolf Blitzer in St. Paul. "Fareed Zakaria GPS" starts at the top of the hour.

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