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Analysis: Message is don't be like Bush on Katrina

 Workforce management analyst Lamar Durrah, left, and workforce management analyst III Danny Fountain, right, monitor weather conditions related to Hu...


Workforce management analyst Lamar Durrah, left, and workforce management analyst III Danny Fountain, right, monitor weather conditions related to Hu...

Hurricane Katrina was an ugly turning point in the Bush presidency, demonstrating what happens when government incompetence and spin replace results. Now comes Hurricane Gustav, casting a cloud over the Republican National Convention and, possibly, John McCain's presidential ambitions.
If ever McCain was going to separate himself from Bush, this would be the time.
It presented the Republican candidate with an opportunity to emphasize he would do things differently than Bush, who seemed distant from the immense suffering inflicted by Katrina. The storm raised doubts about Bush's credibility and competency that still linger on issues ranging from the war in Iraq to the sagging economy.
Barreling toward the Gulf Coast with the potential to be more devastating than Katrina, Gustav not only revived memories of how poorly the Bush administration responded three years ago. It also dominated cable television coverage and stole attention from a convention that Republicans had planned as a splashy, four-day commercial focusing the nation on McCain and his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
With a shortened convention and Americans distracted, McCain and his followers lose a crucial opportunity to argue that he should be the next commander in chief and that Democratic rival Barack Obama is not qualified.
But he gains a chance to emphasize his "Country First" message. At a time when voters tell pollsters they want politicians to put the country above party and break gridlock in Washington, the McCain campaign sought to use Gustav to cast the Arizona senator as a post-partisan politician. "It's time to take our Republican hats off," McCain said, "and put our American hats on."
The line reinforced a theme that McCain likes to emphasize, that he puts public service above personal ambition and politics. It's his way of suggesting that Obama puts himself and politics above the country's needs.
Some Republican strategists were pleased that Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney scrapped their appearances on the convention's opening night Monday. While both would have been assured of a warm welcome by fellow Republicans, their appearances would have been one more linkage between McCain and a president with basement-level approval ratings.
McCain, on a visit to New Orleans in April, brutally criticized the way Bush dealt with Katrina. "Never again, never again, will a disaster of this nature be handled in the disgraceful way it was handled," McCain said.
Three years ago, Bush flew over the devastated Gulf Coast and viewed the swath of destruction from Air Force One at low altitude as he returned to Washington from a truncated vacation in Texas.
In contrast, McCain and Palin detoured their campaign plane to Jackson, Mississippi, on Sunday ahead of Gustav's fall, and rewrote the script for their convention to emphasize a commitment to helping people.
McCain scrapped all but a few opening-day activities of Monday's convention session and said events of the following three days would be determined later.
"I pledge that tomorrow night, and if necessary throughout our convention, we will act as Americans and not as Republicans," McCain said, "because America needs us now."
In fact, he had little choice. It would have been unthinkably insensitive for Republicans to go ahead full bore with partying and pageantry when Americans were at such risk along the Gulf Coast. Television screens would have shown split images of possible scenes of disaster and displaced people in shelters, on the one hand, and flag-waving Republicans in a glitzy convention hall.
Obama also put Gustav on his political horizon, promising to tap his huge political network of donors and volunteers to help hurricane victims if necessary. McCain's campaign chartered a 50-seat plane to fly to Jackson, Mississippi, with any delegates who want to return home and to pick up families of any delegates who are trying to evacuate the Gulf Coast area.
From a political standpoint, McCain has a big stake in how successfully Bush deals with Gustav. He's now at Bush's mercy.
Since Katrina, Bush's every move after a disaster is closely watched to gauge the speed and tone of his response. In wild fires, flooding and other crises, Bush has sprung into action with a quick response. Bush said he would go to Texas on Monday to be with evacuees and emergency responders instead of with convention delegates in St. Paul.
Bush said local leaders should get "everything they need from the federal government to prepare for what all anticipate will be a difficult situation."
If the administration's response to Gustav is deemed inadequate, McCain would be obliged to speak up against Bush and Democrats would have more ammunition to attack. If the response goes well, that takes a big problem off McCain's plate.
"I have every expectation we will not see the mistakes of Katrina repeated," McCain said Sunday.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Terence Hunt has covered the White House since the Reagan administration.

Updated : 2021-10-18 22:54 GMT+08:00