Storm clouds have a silver lining for McCain

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The Independent US

Republican party strategists were scrambling last night to make gold out of the mud left by Hurricane Gustav, recasting their curtailed convention in St Paul as a call to arms for Americans to open their hearts and wallets to victims of the storm, and painting Senator John McCain as a responsive and compassionate leader.

Ostensibly, the collision of Gustav with the party's four-day pageant was a political disaster, denying the Republican presidential candidate the primetime television exposure he needs to propel him to victory in November. As all the main network news anchors headed south to deliver wind-whipped bulletins from Louisiana, there was also a worry that viewers would be reminded only of Hurricane Katrina three years ago – and the horrible mishandling of that crisis by President George Bush.

But, privately, Mr McCain's aides saw silver linings in the storm. It may not have been such a calamity, for instance, that the decision to ditch most of the proceedings in the convention hall yesterday meant cancelling speeches by Mr Bush and his Vice-President, Dick Cheney. Mr McCain has been striving to distance himself from both men. Meanwhile, Mr McCain's team hope he can use the crisis to underline his capacity to respond, and to promote the image of a man of action ready to protect Americans.

"It is a huge loss for him personally," said one Republican pollster, Frank Luntz, "but it could be a success for the [party] if – and this is a big if – they handle the tragedy effectively."

Last night's opening business was slated to be low-key, with delegates expecting brief addresses about Gustav from Mr McCain's wife, Cindy, and the first lady, Laura Bush.

Mr McCain's aides also hope to contrast the Gustav-related activities of their man with those of Barack Obama, who only scrapped his campaign schedule yesterday, heading not to the affected areas but to his headquarters in Chicago.