ST. PAUL, Minn. — Maine delegates to the Republican National Convention here say they are disappointed but understand why their convention schedule had to be altered as a result of Hurricane Gustav, which was predicted to hit the Gulf Coast sometime this morning.

The convention will begin on schedule this afternoon in St. Paul at the Xcel Center but appearances by President Bush and Vice President Cheney have been canceled.

The opening session this afternoon and early evening will be limited to a few hours set aside for party business including officially convening the convention and accepting reports from the rules, credentials and platform committees.

The evening floor session and speeches, which would have included the prime-time television network coverage of the convention, have been canceled.

Maine GOP Chairman Mark Ellis said the state’s delegates were “sort of somber” as they arrived here on Sunday. “We are very much concerned about what is going on in the Gulf.”

Ellis said he experienced a hurricane evacuation in 1999 when he was visiting his parents in Florida and there was a massive evacuation for Hurricane Floyd.

“This has really brought back memories of that for me and how really frightening it is to be in a situation like that. My heart really went out to them,” said Ellis.

Ellis said he “absolutely” thinks it is the right thing for the president and vice president to skip the convention and for the convention activities to be scaled back.

State Rep. Josh Tardy from Newport, vice chairman of the McCain campaign in Maine, said, “Everybody’s reacting in an understanding manner. Everybody completely understands the priority needs to be paying attention to the development of that storm.”

Tardy attended a meeting of convention and state party officials at the Xcel Center on Sunday and said, “In light of the storm we’re just taking a wait-and-see approach on how the convention plan gets implemented.”

“The formal process will certainly take place but everyone is cognizant that the Grand Old Party is not going to have a grand old party” with a hurricane predicted to strike the Gulf region.

“I think people are disappointed but we also know we can’t change the weather. It’s a circumstance out of anyone’s control — we’re going to make the best of it.”

State Sen. Kevin Raye of Perry echoed those comments. “It’s an extremely serious situation. I think the atmosphere is one of great concern for all of the people who may be affected by Gustav.”

“I think it’s an appropriate way for us to handle it and be respectful of what the Gulf Coast is facing. It’s appropriate that the convention be somewhat muted. I can’t conceive that we could just go on as if it wasn’t happening — that would just be entirely inappropriate,” said Raye.

“So far, I’ve been very impressed with the way Sen. John McCain and the party leaders have handled it,” he said.

Sen. John McCain, who is expected to formally receive his party’s nomination this week, said, “There is very little doubt that we have to go from a party event to the call to the nation for action — action to help our fellow citizens in this time of tragedy and disaster, action in the form of volunteering, donations, reaching out our hands and our hearts and our wallets to the people who are under such great threat from this great natural disaster.”

“I pledge that tomorrow night, and if necessary, throughout our convention … to act as Americans, not Republicans.”

McCain was in Mississippi on Sunday and met with Gov. Haley Barbour. McCain, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who McCain selected as his running mate, and Cindy McCain also toured the state’s emergency management center.

Rick Davis, McCain’s campaign manager, said Sunday he hoped normal convention activities would resume later in the week, but added, “We’re making plans on a day-to-day basis.”

About a dozen GOP delegates from Louisiana and elsewhere in the Gulf region were being flown back to their homes from Minneapolis-St. Paul on a chartered plane supplied by the McCain campaign.

It was unclear on Sunday exactly how events at the convention would play out depending on the severity of Hurricane Gustav. “At some point between Monday and Thursday evening, we will convene once again to complete the activities needed to qualify Senator McCain and Governor Palin for the ballot in all 50 states. Beyond that, all we can say is that we will monitor what is happening and make decisions about other convention business as details become available,” said Davis.

Chairman of the Republican National Committee Robert M. “Mike” Duncan added, “The safety and well-being of the people of the Gulf states remains our top concern.”

The schedule of the convention now remains in doubt. According to the original schedule former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani was set to be the keynote speaker on Tuesday and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who was considered as a running mate by McCain, was slated to speak on Wednesday. McCain is scheduled to formally accept his party’s nomination on Thursday evening.

“We really don’t know what’s going to happen. Our prayers and thoughts are with the people in the region,” said Ellis.

A number of anti-war protest marches and counter-convention activities had been scheduled in the St. Paul-Minneapolis area. A free speech forum with a stage has been set up a block from the convention center and members of the public who have gained slots through a lottery system can speak from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily.

A life-size replica of a Guantanamo Bay cell has been erected in St. Paul and visitors can record a video for President Bush and sign Amnesty International’s petition to shut down the facility where suspected terrorists are being held by the U.S. government.

The last time the Republican convention was held in the Twin Cities it was in Minneapolis in 1892 when Benjamin Harrison was nominated to be the party’s presidential nominee.