The Hurricane In Question Is Still Called Katrina

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 1, 2008

ST. PAUL, Minn., Aug. 31 -- Three years after it battered New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, Hurricane Katrina upended this convention city Sunday.

For John McCain, struggling to separate himself from the worst of President Bush's record and to get out from under the weight of his unpopular party, this week was supposed to be about emerging as his own candidate. His selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate energized the Republican Party's conservative base and the candidate himself, setting up a convention week designed to discredit Democratic nominee Barack Obama and boost McCain as an independent-minded reformer ready to shake up Washington.

Now a storm called Gustav threatens to remind voters of perhaps the signal event that helped turn them against the GOP -- the Bush administration's botched response to the devastating 2005 storm. What neither McCain nor the party can tolerate now is anything that smacks of insensitivity or incompetence in the face of another potential natural disaster. As he told NBC anchor Brian Williams on Sunday, the opening of the convention "has got to be Americans helping Americans. America first."

Gustav has disrupted McCain's convention, but the storm also presents the candidate with an opportunity to show that he would be a different kind of president than Bush. His decisions to fly to Mississippi on Sunday for a pre-storm assessment and then to radically redraw the agenda for the convention's opening night until it is clear what might happen with the storm send a message that some top Republicans believe will serve him well in the campaign ahead against Obama.

"McCain has shown exactly the right values in putting America ahead of the Republican Party," said former House speaker Newt Gingrich. "This is a very dangerous situation for thousands of people and for the country, and it is vital that McCain keep focused on the country. So far he has done exactly the right things."

Bush and the Republicans have never recovered from Katrina. The president's approval ratings, already sinking under public dissatisfaction with the war in Iraq through the summer of 2005, plunged further after Katrina. His halting reaction -- and even worse, the woeful performance of federal disaster agencies and his widely ridiculed remark to then-FEMA Director Michael D. Brown, "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job" -- left an indelible mark on his presidency and his party. The Republican brand is at its lowest point in years.

Everything here in St. Paul is now on hold until the storm hits and the damage is assessed. Normally, a political convention is the most scripted of events, a four-day infomercial for the nominee. No one has a script for what the Republicans are dealing with now. They announced Sunday that they would dramatically shorten the opening-day schedule, stripping out political speeches and doing essential business, but out of the glare of television's prime-time hours. Beyond that, it is anybody's guess what kind of show they will be able to present.

For now, Gustav has denied McCain and the Republicans the kind of platform that Obama and the Democrats enjoyed in Denver last week. "Gustav is making this a very different, even unique, convention," said Ben Ginsberg, a Republican strategist and former party official. "It calls for something appropriate in this situation, which is not drama and spectacle."

Added GOP strategist Todd Harris: "Gustav is completely changing the calculus as far as the tone and tenor of the convention."

But what will it become? A week of private parties and public festivities has given way to calls for service, fundraising for victims of the storm, somber reflection and political uncertainty. In some ways, what this convention may turn out to be is less a week of hoopla and something more in keeping with McCain's long-stated message that politics should be about a cause greater than individual self-aggrandizement.

Some Republicans here argue privately that the storm has spared McCain the first uncomfortable moment of the week. The opening-night agenda was to include speeches by Bush and Vice President Cheney. Both of their appearances were canceled, and their roles the rest of the week are not known. If the public judges the administration's performance in responding to Gustav as a notable improvement on its Katrina efforts, Bush may be a more sympathetic figure by the end of the week than he is now.

That, of course, depends on how events play out.

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