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In ill wind, a political opportunity

Charley may carry gains for Bush

WASHINGTON -- Once Hurricane Charley leaves Florida, it's a safe bet that President Bush will sweep in. Natural calamities present political opportunity, and many crucial electoral votes are in the path of Charley's howling winds.

Bush swiftly issued a disaster declaration to expedite federal aid as Charley tore into the Florida Gulf Coast yesterday. He was acting on a request from his brother Jeb, the governor, even before the ferocious storm made landfall. The president was expected to visit the area in the aftermath.

Officials are loath to ascribe campaign motives to emergency response, but politics infuses everything this close to an election. No more so than in the state that handed Bush the presidency.

''This provides both opportunities and real dangers for the president," said Dario Moreno, a political scientist at Florida International University.

Presidents are measured by the aid and sympathy that follow a big hit from nature, and Moreno said Bush stands to gain as long as he treats the emergency as more than an opportunity to roll up his sleeves and clear some rubble for the cameras.

''If he looks like he's doing this for a photo opportunity, it's going to backfire on him," he said. ''He has to make sure FEMA and the emergency aid responders are working around the clock and without a hitch."

The hurricane bore down not only on the scene-stealing state of the last election, but also one of its most politically dynamic parts -- the western and central counties where both parties are in heated competition for the tens of thousands of non-Cuban Hispanics who have moved there since 2000. Florida offers 27 electoral votes, the fourth-biggest prize.

For President Bush, lessons of disaster politics are close to home.

Political advisers to his father, President George H.W. Bush, were caught flat-footed at a similar point of the campaign cycle -- August 1992 -- when Hurricane Andrew wreaked havoc in Florida. Thousands went without shelter and other necessities for days while the magnitude of the storm slowly sank in for the federal government.

President George H.W. Bush was roundly criticized for overseeing a by-the-formula response to extraordinary needs.

He visited the area, but his administration declined an initial appeal to send a military engineering brigade and other troops for the relief effort and stumbled over disaster aid.

With something of a political disaster in the making, Bush finally pivoted, opening federal coffers, dispatching soldiers, and declaring Homestead Air Force Base would be rebuilt although some military officials had been questioning its usefulness before Andrew hit.

Reconstruction later was judged too expensive, and it became a reserve base employing less than a quarter of the 8,000 personnel previously.

Barring an inept performance from the White House, natural disasters inoculate presidents from campaign criticism for a time because opponents are wary of second-guessing the nation's leader in a crisis and cannot be seen as trying to capitalize on people's misfortune.

Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry, for example, will not let himself be seen as begrudging Floridians federal relief dollars no matter how generous, analysts say.

''He can't accuse the president of politicizing a tragedy," said Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, a presidential scholar at the University of Pennsylvania.

''Kerry is best to be silent on the issue -- it's territory he doesn't need to go into."

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