ST. PAUL, Minn. - Sen. John McCain chose "Country First" as the theme for the Republican National Convention. As Hurricane Gustav crept toward the Gulf Coast, disrupting commemoration activities of the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, McCain showed his theme was more than just words.

After 18 months of planning and hours before the convention was to begin, McCain effectively cut a quarter of the convention by scrapping most of the first night's activities and transforming the occasion into an opportunity to promote giving to hurricane recovery and relief.

Political rhetoric was limited to the minimum legal requirements necessary to conduct the convention and begin the formal nomination process for John McCain and Sarah Palin. For Gulf Coast delegates, the McCain Campaign chartered a plane to help those who had already arrived in Minnesota but needed to get back to prepare for the oncoming storm.

As the convention opened, the invocation asked for God's protection for the people on the Gulf Coast. The opening address, by Republican National Committee Chairman Mike Duncan, urged convention goers and those watching to pull out their cell phones and text the word "GIVE" to 24357 to donate $5 to the American Red Cross through a partnership with the Wireless Foundation.

Meanwhile an army of convention workers handed out printed cards that had the McCain "Country First" logo on one side and on the flip side a web address and phone number for relief and recovery agencies in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. Delegates planned to assemble "country first" packages with emergency supplies to be sent to Americans needing basic necessities.

Later in the evening, Cindy McCain and First Lady Laura Bush addressed the convention and urged folks to visit to find ways to help those affected by Hurricane Gustav. The "cause greater" plays off a McCain campaign theme that Americans should seek to serve a cause greater than ourselves. McCain has written, "Love of country is another way of saying love of your fellow countrymen - a truth I learned a long time ago in a country very different from ours. Patriotism is another way of saying service to a cause greater than self-interest. " It isn't Pat Buchanan's "conservatism of the heart" or George W. Bush's "compassionate conservatism" but more like George H.W. Bush's "thousand points of light." It is the idea of servant leadership.

Mrs. Bush introduced video remarks from Gulf Coast governors including Gov. Haley Barbour. The preparation and response by Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana provided a stark contrast to that of his predecessor, Gov. Kathleen Blanco. I believe we would see a similar transformation from the Bush administration to a McCain administration.

Again, changing his vice-president announcement campaign swing through battle-ground states, McCain and Palin instead accepted an invitation by Gov. Barbour to attend a briefing at the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency headquarters in Rankin County. McCain saw a state ready and prepared and spoke of reforms needed in the federal response.

It reminded me of a column U.S. Rep. Chip Pickering wrote for ABC News in February 2007 when he endorsed McCain during the Republican Primary. Pickering wrote, "McCain is a reformer. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the federal emergency response frustrated Mississippians. From debris removal contracts, to reimbursing our local towns and counties and providing the funding necessary to recover, federal bureaucracies were slow and often more concerned with procedure than people; more focused on corporate storm chasers than rebuilding our schools and hospitals and even bridges and roads. We need a leader in the White House who will fight the bureaucracies, take on the status quo and demand results and reforms. Americans know McCain is ready for that fight and won't back down despite entrenched interests who benefit from the current, broken system."

McCain adjusting his campaign plans and changing the convention in response to Gustav is not the first time he has altered political plans in response to serious real world activities. In 2000, McCain postponed his announcement to join the race for the Republican nomination for President because of a crisis in the Balkans. And when McCain supported the unpopular surge, he said he would rather American win a war than he win a campaign: principle before politics.

McCain's seasoned and reasoned responses contrasts with Obama's youthful exuberance and cult of personality. Obama demonstrated he lacks the seriousness of dealing with a crisis with his weak response to the Russian invasion of Georgia, and then defended himself for that response by politically attacking McCain. After the Iraq intelligence failures, early mission execution failures in Iraq, and the government's failed response to Hurricane Katrina, voters want a competent adult in the White House. This week McCain demonstrated he possesses the will to make big decisions of a serious nature. McCain might not have the iconic presence to be celebrity in chief, but he has experience and judgment to be commander in chief.

Brian Perry of Jackson, a former congressional aide, is a partner in a public affairs firm. Reach him at