As often as not, presidential campaigns are won or lost because of the unexpected, not the predictable. In the heat of a final push towards Election Day, what usually makes the difference is how each candidate responds to and takes advantage of unforeseen events. Two weeks ago, for instance, the Obama campaign had no way of predicting that John McCain could not count, at a moment's notice, the number of houses he and his wife own. But they reacted instantly. Within hours, Obama's minions pounced, broadcasting the gaffe for days in what amounted to the Democrat's single biggest negative attack of the campaign.
Party conventions, by their very nature, are supposed to be one of the few reliably scripted moments in a campaign. Democrats and Republicans alike spend years planning all four days of partisan posturing down to the smallest detail, in the hope that they can broadcast the perfect message before the chaotic fall battle ensues. But now, thanks to that most unpredictable of factors, the weather, McCain and the Republican Party face an unexpected challenge, and potential opportunity, in their quadrennial gathering. With Hurricane Gustav bearing down on the Gulf Coast, the GOP decided late Sunday to cancel most of the first day of the Republican National Convention. The storm is the worst to pass over the Gulf of Mexico since 2005, when President Bush and the federal government horribly botched the rescue and relief response to Hurricane Katrina, unmistakably tarnishing the Republican brand.
John McCain can't stop the storm, but his campaign is determined to make the most of it by using it to rebrand a new generation of Republicans as leaders who govern effectively and rise above partisanship. "There's very little doubt that we have to go from a party event to a call to the nation for action, action to help our fellow citizens in this time of tragedy and disaster, action in the form of volunteering, donations, reaching out our hands and our hearts and our wallets to the people who are under such great threat from this great natural disaster," McCain said midday Sunday, after receiving a briefing on preparedness with four Republican Gulf coast governors.
The McCain campaign's new message dovetailed with two themes the campaign had already been planning to promote at the Republican convention--his desire to improve the quality of government and his determination to excite Americans to increase their participation in service for the public good. During a Sunday interview with NBC News, McCain said he was even considering accepting his party's nomination Thursday not from the convention floor in St. Paul as planned, but via satellite from somewhere in the storm ravaged region. The opening slate of convention speakers Monday, which included an address by President Bush, was also swept clean, leaving only a barebones schedule of parliamentary procedures.
In some ways, the storm could not come at a worse time for McCain. It interrupts a wave of mostly positive press coverage, and reignited Republican enthusiasm, after his announcement Friday that he had selected Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate. Other messages that the campaign aimed to promote in the days leading up to the convention have also also been disrupted. For instance, McCain spoke Sunday at a rally in Missouri that brought together two of his formal rivals for the Republican nomination, Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, who have had tense relations since the end of the primary campaign. Huckabee notably called Romney "my colleague and my friend," a rare expression of warmth in a mostly hostile relationship, but the show of party unity was overshadowed by the evacuations and other preparations for Gustav.
McCain's stated determination to rise above politics and partisanship may also be easier to declare than to accomplish. Before McCain arrived at the rally, which was held at a minor league ballpark, several of his surrogates offered pointed attacks on Barack Obama in an effort to fire up the crowd. The Republican Missouri Governor Matt Blunt noted that Obama and his running mate, Joe Biden, were among the most liberal members of the U.S. Senate, according to one ranking. Blaine Luetkemeyer, who is running for Congress, tried to minimize Obama's energy plan. "His plan is to inflate your tires," he told the crowd. "Typical liberal response, isn't it?" A Republican candidate for governor, Rep. Kenny Hulshof, joked that Democratic Convention last week had been painful to watch. "I could only take last week watching Denver in small doses, I'll tell you that," he said.
Just hours later, McCain campaign manager Rick Davis attacked Obama for criticizing McCain and Palin. "So he attacks us while there's a hurricane going on and John McCain suspends his convention basically," Davis said in an interview with the Politico. "What bigger contrast can you have about putting your country first?"
Both McCain and Palin, meanwhile, have promised to leave politics aside. "We will put aside our political hats and put on our American hats," McCain said at the rally, while standing on a stage printed with the words, Country First. Palin tried to burnish her bonafides as a strong leader by addressing the television cameras moments later. "I'd like to add my call for every person and every family in danger to make a straight path for safer ground," she said. "Crisis on this scale can bring out the best in our country."
The McCain campaign is waiting to see the impact of the storm before planning out the rest of the week. But even if the storm damage is bad, it will not be such an easy decision for the Arizona Senator. The media is already asking questions about how much good it does to have a politician with a big security entourage and no actual connection to the afflicted region staying put there.
Whatever happens to the Gulf, however, there is no doubt that the McCain campaign will continue to use the aftermath as a way to demonstrate the candidate's superior leadership qualities. From the early primaries, McCain has run as a candidate best able to deal with a crisis, though the focus has mostly been on national security challenges. Now, in a circumstance at home he would never have chosen, he has a chance to deliver on that promise. (See photos of John McCain's Tumultuous Week here.)