In the hasty, hurricane-driven makeover of the GOP’s convention plans, Republicans bent over backwards on Monday to send a clear and nonpartisan message to the country: We care.

With the nightmare of Katrina still on the minds of party leaders, John McCain and the White House turned the first day of the Republican National Convention into something akin to a telethon.

With her husband canceling his appearance in St. Paul, first lady Laura Bush and Cindy McCain appeared onstage briefly in the afternoon to make an appeal for money for relief from the effects of Hurricane Gustav, which made landfall earlier in the day but spared New Orleans from a direct hit.

“Our first priority now is to ensure the safety and well being of those living in the Gulf Coast region,” Bush, speaking in front of a sky blue screen with a lone image of an American flag, told the assembled delegates. An array of phone numbers then appeared on screen to which viewers could place calls in order to help.

The GOP clearly wanted to convey that in contrast to the response to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina three years ago, the federal government was on the ball this time. Even though partisanship was to be kept to a minimum, Laura Bush introduced special videotaped messages from four Gulf Coast governors, unable to make it to the convention because of the hurricane, and noted, “they also happen to be Republicans.”

In his message, Gov. Rick Perry of Texas was even more blatant, saying, “You are seeing Republican governors in Gulf states doing a wonderful job of taking care of citizens.”

With the hurricane forcing the Republicans to scale back convention festivities, the atmosphere inside the Xcel Energy Center here was much calmer than that of the Pepsi Center in Denver last week. Politicos roaming the halls were scarce, and the top network anchors, including Katie Couric, Brian Williams and Charles Gibson, left on Sunday to report from the Gulf.

Throughout the Twin Cities, plans were afoot to tone down the parties planned throughout the week. A Friends of New Orleans celebration at First Avenue nightclub in downtown Minneapolis was being reconceived, and Distilled Spirits of America had changed the title of its party from “Spirits of Minneapolis” to “Spirits of the Gulf Coast.”

There was a tinge of showbiz to the early proceedings, although nowhere near the level seen in Denver. Director-writer David Zucker did interviews with radio and TV outlets all day to promote his new comedy, “An American Carol,” which was screened before delegates at a reception on Sunday. Miss Minnesota USA and Miss Teen USA roamed the halls, posing for pictures, and the media buzzed about the revelation that Sarah Palin’s unmarried 17-year-old daughter is pregnant.

But outside the Xcel Energy Center on the streets of St. Paul, things were not so subdued.

Police used pepper spray as five protesters were reportedly arrested when they lit a trash can on fire, and many more were arrested in conjunction with other violence as dozens of demonstrators splintered off from the official route of an antiwar march from the state Capitol to the Xcel Center. There were reports of windows being smashed in a local department store and bank building, and by the end of the day a reported 284 people were detained by police.

One breakaway group, waving signs with messages like “Our streets, their war,” at one point ran through the streets of St. Paul as police in riot gear slowly approached.

Media surrounded one demonstrator, who gave his name only as “Keith” from Wisconsin and had parked himself on Wabasha Street. The lineup of police arrived, brandishing billy clubs and helmets with clear masks and stood their ground for a few minutes. They then apparently decided that it was all not worth the provocation, and Keith stood up and said to them: “Nice boots.”

Several blocks away, at the officially organized protest of thousand and perhaps tens of thousands of marchers, famed demonstrator Vermin Supreme stood before a line of police on horses and sang the theme from “Mr. Ed,” right down to “Willlllllll burrrr.”He said the demonstrations weren’t that different from those at other recent conventions.

Protesters chanted “End this war, end this war.” One member of the group Code Pink wore a pink Marine uniform, helping to lead the group with Rollerblades. Another sign read: “Bush vs. McCain = Reign of error.”

The protests fell short of the 50,000 predicted to show up, perhaps because President Bush was not present at the convention, but it was still more significant presence of demonstrators than the Dems drew in Denver last week.

“This is much bigger, and the protests are much bigger,” said Code Pink’s Jodie Evans. “I think there are plenty of Republicans still in town and plenty of Republicans in power still in town.”

As they approached the Xcel Center, the demonstrators filed past a group of about 80 counterprotesters, including Tom Thurnau of Burnsville, Minn., who held a placard that read “United for a strong America.” It was signed by Jon Voight, who earlier in the day had spoken to a group of parents group of soldiers who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“No one believes in war, but sometimes it is necessary,” Thurnau said.

In his speech, Voight spoke of how he had changed his views since the ’60s and ’70s. As he made his way through the Xcel Center, shaking hands and making appearances on such outlets as Fox News, he said of the demonstrations going on outside, “Listen, I went through the ’60s. I know a lot about it. These are not pleasant people to be around.”