McCain in New Orleans: Undoing the Damage?

President Bush's lackadaisacal response to the Hurricane Katrina crisis is pretty much a truism by now. But John McCain's cameo role in the mess may soon make it into the highlight reel as well.

As the deadly storm system moved ashore almost three years ago, sending fatal floods through New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, Bush was in Phoenix, on a tour aimed at boosting participation in what was then the administration's new Medicare prescription-drug plan. McCain had opposed the bill, but showed up to meet Bush at the airport anyway, along with other Arizona lawmakers. It was Aug. 29, McCain's 69th birthday, and on the tarmac, Bush presented his old political rival with a cake. The two posed, holding the cake up for cameras, and within seconds, went their separate ways. The cake, melting in the 110-degree Arizona heat, was left behind, uneaten.

It's a photo op that Democrats will no doubt use as part of their campaign to portray a McCain presidency as nothing more than a third Bush term--a picture of the senator and the president, yukking it up on one of the administration's darkest days. But McCain, visiting New Orleans this week as part of his campaign's tour of America's "forgotten" places, is trying to put distance between himself and Bush as he woos moderate Democrats and independents. Arriving Thursday morning, McCain was asked how he planned to distinguish himself from Bush's handling of Katrina. "Just like I do everything," he said. "They have to judge me on my record." He argues, as he has all week in places like Selma, Ala., and in eastern Kentucky, that he's a different kind of Republican and would be a different kind of president.

Today he took a walking tour of the Ninth Ward--perhaps the most visible symbol of the Bush administration's inaction in the wake of Katrina--passing a mix of rebuilt homes and vacant, blighted houses. After the tour, McCain addressed reporters in front of a restored church. "Never again will we allow such a mishandling of a natural disaster," he vowed. "Never again."

Yet on the issue of New Orleans, it's still unclear how different McCain and Bush actually are. Speaking about Katrina, McCain, like many other Republicans, has trashed the administration's handling of the storm and has vowed to prevent similar catastrophes. "We can never let anything like that happen again," McCain told reporters on board his Straight Talk Express earlier this week. Still, the senator, who has visited the Lower Ninth Ward twice since the storm, has yet to tread into the far trickier debate over what to do about New Orleans now, a fight that has dragged on and on with little progress since the waters washed part of the city away.

The senator won't present his own plans for recovery, at least not today. Asked earlier this week if he thought the Lower Ninth Ward should be rebuilt, McCain shrugged, considering the question for several seconds. "I really don't know," he finally said. "That's why I am going … We need to go back to have a conversation about what to do: rebuild it, tear it down, you know, whatever it is."

That's an answer that likely won't please many people, especially those in New Orleans who have been fighting to keep the city's rebuilding an important priority for Washington. McCain's team is hoping that the candidate, at the very least, gets credit for making the effort to reach out in New Orleans, a city that is hardly friendly Republican territory. Yet it will likely take a lot more effort to undo the political damage the Bushies inflicted on their party in the aftermath of the storm--something McCain freely admits. "I think Americans will be disturbed by those images for a long time," he says. "It can't happen again."