The unifying thread connecting many of this week's tumultuous events — the scaling back of much of the Republican National Convention due to Hurricane Gustav, the canceling of President Bush's speech to delegates, and even the selection of the governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, as Mr. McCain's running mate — is the reintroduction to America of Mr. McCain outside of Mr. Bush's shadow.
Mr. Bush, whose approval ratings languish between the high 20s and low 30s, represents the greatest weight on Mr. McCain's candidacy. Mr. Obama's line last week was typical of the type of attack Mr. McCain can expect during the next two months: "McCain likes to talk about judgment, but really, what does it say about your judgment when you think George Bush was right more than 90 percent of the time?" Now, thanks to events planned and unplanned, Mr. McCain is about to emerge as entirely his own man.
Mr. McCain's rejiggering of the convention schedule in St. Paul provides the strongest contrast with President Bush. Mr. Bush's plummet into historically low unpopularity began with the administration's mishandling of Hurricane Katrina. Although he was not the only public actor to have failed during the crisis — state and city authorities also played a major role in the disaster — Mr. Bush never recovered from the images of Americans stranded and helpless outside of the New Orleans convention center.
The new plan for the Republican convention shows that Mr. McCain, unlike Mr. Bush, will give domestic crises his full attention. His comments when he pledged "that tomorrow night, and if necessary, throughout our convention if necessary, to act as Americans not Republicans, because America needs us now no matter whether we are Republican or Democrat" set the tone.
Even before the formation of Hurricane Gustav, Mr. Bush's speech to the convention stood as the most awkward part of the convention schedule. Mr. Bush is toxic among Democrats, unpopular with independents, and hit-or-miss, even, with many Republicans. Under normal circumstances, it's just not possible to remove a sitting president and the symbolic head of the party from a convention schedule. With the danger of a hurricane landfall looming, Mr. McCain was able to get both Mr. Bush and the even more politically poisonous Mr. Cheney off the national stage.
Many of the far left will still try to implicate Mr. McCain in the Katrina failure. A photograph of Messrs. Bush and McCain celebrating the Arizona senator's 69th birthday, August 29, 2005, the day Katrina made land fall in New Orleans, still exists at the White House Web site. But the failing still lies with the executive branch.
And, finally, Mr. McCain's selection of Mrs. Palin as his running mate reinforces how far the Arizona senator is willing to go to separate himself from Mr. Bush. Unlike Mr. Bush, who chose a former congressman, cabinet secretary, and corporate executive as his running mate, Mr. McCain went as far away from Washington D.C. as it's possible to go within America's territory on the North American continent, Alaska.
His description of his running mate was entirely contrary to the words that could apply to either Messrs. Bush or Cheney. "The person I'm about to introduce to you was a union member and is married to a union member and understands the problems, the hopes, and the values of working people, knows what it's like to worry about mortgage payments and health care and the cost of gasoline and groceries," Mr. McCain said when introducing her on Friday. The announcement that Mrs. Palin's 17-year-old daughter, Bristol, is pregnant only shows how eager Mr. McCain is to go in a different direction from Mr. Bush, although it is still unknown how this will play out politically.
Americans have such short memories. Mr. McCain deserves credit for one of the successes of the presidency of Mr. Bush, the troop surge in Iraq that has rendered the country more peaceful. He pushed the troop increase for years even when Mr. Bush and his former secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, opposed it.
During the Republican primary in New Hampshire in 2000, Messrs. McCain and Bush were bitter rivals. In that race, allies of Mr. Bush ran television ads that morphed Mr. McCain's face into President Clinton, a fact that drew Mr. McCain's ire in one of the debates there. It's easy to imagine Democrats in coming weeks running a similar spot, transforming Mr. McCain's face into Mr. Bush's. Mr. McCain's actions of this week — the able handling of the hurricane, the removal of Mr. Bush from the scene, and his pick of Mrs. Palin — will make that ad a little less convincing.
Mr. Gitell (gitell.com) is a contributing editor of The New York Sun.