For GOP, a second chance at disaster management

In New Orleans in April, John McCain vowed that the "terrible and disgraceful" response to Katrina "will never, ever again happen."

John McCain could eventually decide that Hurricane Gustav was a wind from heaven, at least from the perspective of his convention messaging. Although the GOP political festivities in Minneapolis-St. Paul may shed some of the long-planned glitter, and McCain may be forced to drop the sharp jabs he had intended to throw at Barack Obama and his running mate, Joseph Biden, the Republican nominee could come out ahead with this new script.

The candidate who made "Country First" his campaign slogan, and "service" the opening theme for his convention is well positioned to adapt to a natural disaster, and McCain moved quickly to Mississippi to be nearer the scene and ready with his themes: "It... has got to be Americans helping Americans. America first," McCain told NBC News when asked about his convention on Sunday. "Open your wallets, your hearts -- all of your assistance. And I think our people can and want to be committed to that cause rather than anything political."

Republican operatives and analysts were conspicuously silent when asked for their thoughts about new message opportunities, and about the risks to McCain of losing his prime-time catapult into the fall campaign. Republicans tied to the nominee's campaign and to convention operations distributed talking points that warned their people not to talk to the media about political implications tied to Gustav. "It's not about party; it's about Americans," said Brett O'Donnell, who is one of the convention program managers.

"He doesn't get a chance, when all of America is listening, to provide an unedited commentary about what he believes and about what he wants to do," said GOP pollster and consultant Frank Luntz, who was in Minneapolis on Sunday conducting a focus group with 25 undecided voters. Those Twin Cities residents all agreed that McCain's convention should continue, despite Gustav's impact. "It is a huge loss for him personally," Luntz continued, "but it could be a success for the GOP if -- and this is a big if -- they handle the tragedy effectively."

The do-over chances are there, McCain supporters believe. "Obviously, we'd rather not have a hurricane," said Mark McKinnon, who created political ads and messages for President Bush. "And pray for no damage, no injury and no loss of life. But since there is one, it does present an opportunity for both Senator McCain and President Bush," he added. "It's a chance for McCain to be assertive and compassionate in the face of a natural disaster."

Perhaps, but some Democrats think that it's a reminder the Republicans would rather avoid. "Katrina effectively ended Bush's presidency," said Doug Sosnik, who was a senior adviser to President Clinton in the White House. "Any reminder of this failure is bad for McCain, as well as all Republican candidates across the country."

But Don Baer, who was a communications adviser to President Clinton, thinks that McCain's long record of national service could benefit from being linked to a natural disaster such as Gustav. "They need to be defining his time in Washington as more than business as usual, and the speakers at the convention could be used to describe what he did and what he's done in a meaningful way," he said.

During a campaign stop in New Orleans in April, McCain made some straight-talk promises he will be expected to deliver on, even before the election. "Never again will a disaster of this nature be handled in the terrible and disgraceful way it's been handled," McCain vowed, "It will never, ever again happen."

Mike McCurry, a White House press secretary under Clinton, said that the Bush administration and Republican officials get "a chance to show that they are getting it right... an opportunity to demonstrate competency and compassion, and that was part of what they needed to communicate anyhow."

An added benefit to McCain might be a welcome breather -- a little less focus on Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, his running mate, which McCurry saw as "a good thing for the ticket.... They get more time to get her up to speed" as a polished national candidate.

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