McCain Keeps Bush at a Safe Distance

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Brooks Kraft / Corbis for TIME

For a day it seemed as if Hurricane Gustav might not be such a bad thing for John McCain and the Republican Party after all. True, the storm instantly reminded Americans of the lowest point in the eight years of George W. Bush's presidency: the drowning of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. And true, Gustav turned what would have been a celebratory atmosphere on the first day of the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., on Monday into a haphazard fund-raiser for storm victims devoid of any upbeat rallying.

But the hurricane gave the McCain camp something it could hardly have hoped for a few days ago: a reason to cancel Bush's speech on the opening day of the party's coronation of his successor. The President, with favorability ratings stuck below 30% for months, may be popular in the convention hall with loyal GOP soldiers. But with the Democrats doing everything they can to paint McCain's candidacy as a third term of Bush, the President is the last person McCain wants as the party's face going into the fall campaign.

The problem with silver linings, though, is that they disappear as fast as the clouds they surround. Gustav's negligible impact and early demise meant that the GOP couldn't cancel Bush completely — throwing a sitting President under a bus must be done discreetly. So they've settled for the next best thing: a very short speech via satellite by the President from the White House tonight around 9:30 p.m. E.T. Bush will speak for all of eight minutes, thanking Republicans for their backing over the years and urging them to work hard to help elect McCain.

If Bush is taking the slight personally, it's not showing. White House spokeswoman Dana Perino put the best face on the situation at the daily briefing in Washington today. "The President is very grateful for this opportunity. He's going to express his gratitude to all the people gathered in the hall," she said. "He will talk a little bit about the hurricane, but mainly the speech is going to focus on John McCain and why he believes that John McCain has the qualities that are demanded by the Commander in Chief role."

It will be a fast eight minutes, over before the broadcast networks begin their 10 p.m. E.T. coverage. And to make sure Bush's speech fades quickly, the GOP is following it with speakers designed to overshadow the President. First, Fred Thompson, the popular Law & Order star and former presidential candidate, will try to fire up the crowd in St. Paul. He will be followed by Joe Lieberman, the self-described "independent Democrat" whom McCain flirted with for his running mate, ensuring a torrent of media coverage. By the time Lieberman, the former running mate for Al Gore, is done, Bush's eight minutes should be a dim memory.

The White House is trying not to take the scheduling slight to heart, even though a satellite address had once seemed a necessity only if Bush had to stay in the Gulf region to monitor the storm's aftermath. Perino said Bush still has good reason to stay put in Washington: behind Gustav, other storms are lurking. "We have Tropical Storm Hanna, and Ike that's following behind that, and possibly another one behind that," Perino said at the briefing today. "And so it's appropriate that the President be able to be here at the White House."