Add Gustav to McCain's challenges

The Baltimore Sun

St. Paul, Minn. - Nothing ever seems to come easily for John McCain.

Last year at this time, his Straight Talk bus was running on fumes, and there were predictions that he'd soon be out of the presidential race. Now, just as he's about to claim his party's nomination - a prize he began pursuing almost a decade ago -natural disaster looms.

A major hurricane is threatening to disrupt McCain's plans to use this week's Republican Party convention to promote his reputation for independent thinking, reinforce his call for reform and assail his Democratic rival.

The storm bearing down on the Gulf Coast could hardly come at a worse time. Regardless of where it strikes, nature has reminded the country of the greatest domestic failure of George W. Bush's presidency: the tragically hapless federal government response to Hurricane Katrina.

"The original maverick," as McCain's campaign ads brand him, lived up to that moniker Friday when he unexpectedly chose Sarah Palin, an obscure but energetic first-term governor of Alaska, for vice president. He called her part of his plan to "shake up Washington" and its politics of "me first and country second."

By choosing a social conservative, McCain may already have achieved one of his top convention goals: firing up the party base, including Christian conservatives, who were valuable foot soldiers in Bush's 2004 re-election.

One of McCain's biggest political problems has been a lack of enthusiasm among conservative Republicans, many of whom supported other candidates in the primaries and remain unconvinced that McCain shares their beliefs. He was booed at a conference of conservative activists last winter.

"He's shown his independence," said Chris Henick, a Republican strategist. "The question now is, has he refreshed the party?"

Another challenge: the age issue. At 72, McCain would be the oldest man ever to assume the presidency.

Picking the 44-year-old Palin - an avid distance runner and mother of five - instantly gave his ticket a more youthful aspect. Attractive images of a beaming McCain with the photogenic governor, a former beauty queen, graced TV screens and newspaper front pages this weekend.

McCain's and Palin's acceptance speeches are this week's main events. They may have a hard time drawing a TV audience that approaches the 40 million who saw Obama address an outdoor spectacle complete with fireworks.

The Democrats' successful convention boosted Obama to an eight-point national lead, according to the latest Gallup tracking poll, and made the Republican sequel that much more important.

Going into the back-to-back conventions, McCain had pulled into a tie with Obama - overcoming what polls show is a decided Democratic advantage this year, because of the sour economy and Bush's unpopularity. The closeness of the contest left some Democrats in Denver pessimistic about their ticket's prospects in November.

Strategists in both parties credited McCain's tough tactics over the past six weeks for making the race closer than expected. Obama's Senate colleague from Illinois, Richard J. Durbin, compared McCain's summer success to a 12-0 run in a basketball game.

Republicans are hoping for a similar run this week. Conventions offer presidential candidates a unique opportunity to deliver carefully scripted messages to a national audience, and this is McCain's turn to have his say.

The Arizona senator would like to frame the election around the question of who is best prepared to lead the country. Democrats want it to be a referendum on Bush's presidency and portray McCain, who supported Bush's agenda at least 90 percent of the time on congressional votes, as more of the same.

"McCain needs to continue to make the case that he is ready to lead and Barack Obama is not. That is the essential definition of this election," said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster. "It can never be mean or angry, but John McCain is now beautifully set up to continue his fundamental message, which is: The world is a dangerous place. Put somebody in charge who knows what he's doing."

Scott Reed, a Republican consultant from Annapolis, said McCain "needs the convention to really stick it to Obama, because Obama is still more undefined than people think, and voters are showing they are nervous about him." He said that McCain also needs to present a forward-looking agenda, "what a McCain presidency would look like."

First, though, Republicans must pass the baton from their current president to the man they hope will take his place.

The Bush-McCain history is a complicated one. McCain was Bush's toughest foe in the 2000 primaries, and he bucked the president by becoming one of the few Republicans to vote against Bush's signature tax cut plan. In 2004, however, McCain embraced Bush's re-election with considerable ardor.

Now he's running against Bush again, or at least the Bush record. A recent McCain campaign ad declared that Americans are "worse off than we were four years ago," a line that would seem more at home in an Obama commercial than a Republican one.

Plans call for Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney to take bows at tomorrow night's opening session, then disappear quickly. But in an eerie accident of timing, Hurricane Gustav is forecast to hit the U.S. coast at almost the exact moment Bush is scheduled to speak.

The president remains highly popular with the Republican activists who are gathering in the Twin Cities, but he's earned some of the all-time lowest presidential job ratings from the general public. His poor standing is a significant drag on Republican prospects. This is virtually no chance, both sides say, for Republicans to retake either the House or the Senate in 2008, which makes McCain the party's only realistic hope to retain a measure of power in Washington.

Bush's appearance has been carefully choreographed to give him a warm sendoff, but his stay in the convention city will be brief, if it happens at all. He's scheduled to fly in late on Labor Day afternoon and return to Maryland the same night, ending up at Camp David in the Catoctin hills outside Frederick, where he'll watch the convention on TV with the rest of the country.

McCain and Bush were last seen together at a campaign event in May, a McCain fund-raiser in Arizona, and their paths won't cross at the convention. McCain is expected to arrive Wednesday and give his acceptance speech the next night.

Bush has declared an official emergency in Alabama, Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi in advance of Hurricane Gustav, and Republican strategists are urging the party to pay more attention to the politics of disaster planning than to the celebration at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.

If the storm prompts the president to cancel his appearance, as some expect, McCain might benefit.

Already, news media attention has shifted away from the Republicans in favor of hurricane coverage. Instead of chewing nonstop over how much Bush is hurting McCain, the cable news channels are featuring government spokesmen talking about the preparations for avoiding potential calamity.

The show in St. Paul will still go on, officials say, though program details may change. Too much time and money have been invested to call things off, and it's impossible to change the dates.

"The gavel goes down on Monday, and the convention starts," said Maria Cino, a longtime Bush loyalist who has spent the past 18 months as the convention's CEO. "There will be a four-day convention."

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