Politics an Afterthought in Charley's Wake

If Hurricane Charley (search) had struck three years ago, President Bush's (search) tour through the wreckage of this coastal city would have been just the sort of post-disaster visit that other presidents have made to the scenes of storms, earthquakes, floods and fires.

But this is 2004, and Democrat John Kerry (search) has a slight lead in Florida, according to the most recent poll.

So even if the president was acting strictly out of concern for people who lost their homes and businesses, there are some who will question whether his visit was also about seeking more support in a state that gave him the presidency by 537 votes in 2000.

"You wonder if they're just coming down for votes," said Melinda Grantham, whose downtown home was severely damaged and whose business, the Waves of Grain Bakery, was destroyed. "It would have been nice if he put on a pair of gloves and helped us."

She and her boyfriend, Skip Roberts, were covered in sweat and busy sorting through their damaged belongings when Bush's motorcade swept by. Both are undecided voters who weren't thinking about politics; they weren't overly impressed that Bush and his brother, Gov. Jeb Bush (search), were in town.

"We ain't even worrying about elections. We've got a town to rebuild," Roberts said.

However, both said they welcome the president if he sends help back to Florida after he returns to Washington.

"I'm glad he did come, so he can see the destruction, because we need the help," Grantham said. "Bring 'em all on! The congressmen, the senators, the Democrats and the Republicans. Bring 'em on if it's going to get us some help."

Chad Maxwell, shoveling up debris in front of the real estate agency where he works, said the visit wouldn't affect people's votes -- but the follow-through might.

If politicians don't offer assistance "they won't be back. This is what they're voted in for," Maxwell said. "It's extremely political. They're the ones who have the ability to help."

Eddie Russo of nearby Port Charlotte was helping downtown restaurants hook up generators and find portable coolers when the president stopped his motorcade and met with people in the area.

"He was sincere, he was very gentle, mellow," Russo said. "He was genuinely concerned. He wasn't politicking, that's for sure."

President Bush arrived two days after Charley hit and promised rapid disaster relief. His father had been criticized for responding too slowly following Andrew despite his quick visit to Miami-Dade County.

"Yeah, if I didn't come, they would've said we should have been here more rapidly," Bush told reporters during his tour.

Adam and Brenda Stephens watched Bush's motorcade leave the airport and head downtown.

"I saw him. He waved," Stephens told his wife with no sign of excitement in his voice.

They had no electricity, no phone, no water and no idea when their utilities would be restored. Both are undecided voters and said Bush's visit wouldn't be a deciding factor.

"There's so many other things on my mind other than politics, it doesn't make a difference," said Adam Stephens. "He's a sightseer that can send the money where it needs to go, so let him be here."