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Starting Gate: More Distance For McCain?

(ST. PAUL) Calculating political fallout from something as serious as a hurricane while it is bearing down on the Gulf Coast seems a little crass. But the fact of the matter is that Gustav, its impact and the decisions by the Republican Party on how to handle their presidential nominating convention in the middle of it could have profound consequences as voters really begin tuning into the campaign.

Nothing symbolizes the image of the Republican Party over the past four years better than Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. The devastation of New Orleans and parts of Mississippi and the perceived ineptitude of the government's response hangs over the GOP still. So much so that it was mentioned over and over again at the Democratic convention in Denver last week.

There's no escaping the political peril John McCain could be in as a major hurricane hits Louisiana again just as his convention is set to kick off. Anything close to a repeat of Katrina would reinforce many of the reasons why the Bush administration has sunk in approval over the past three years.

It also gives McCain a possible opportunity of sorts. Efficient reaction at the federal and state level (both guided by Republicans) would show at least that the lessons of Katrina have been absorbed. In short, it gives them the chance to get it right this time around.

The decision by McCain and the party to cancel the celebratory elements was a necessary one. Not only can Republicans afford to be seen as having a party right now, there would have been a real question as to who would have tuned in – or carried any of it. Both President Bush and Vice President Cheney were scheduled to appear tonight which clearly would not have happened even if the decision were made to go forward.

While President Bush remains highly popular among the delegates gathered here (a CBS delegate survey shows him with an 80 percent approval rating among convention goers), his low approval among the majority of voters is a drag on McCain's campaign. Bush's absence here will be understood by the delegates while it helps dissolve the ties to McCain's campaign even further.

Cancellation of tonight's events gives John McCain the opportunity to walk the walk. Sacrifice and service to the "greater good" have long been staples of McCain's political message. His selection of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin to be his running mate signaled, among other things, McCain's desire to run as his own man, not the party's man. So far in this uncommon convention, he's getting a chance to prove that further.

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