TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Two devastating hurricanes have given President Bush something his political advisers couldn't dream up: the chance to play comforter in chief in a battleground state he is determined to win again.
Both Bush and Democratic presidential challenger John Kerry (search) deny any attempt to play politics with the devastating storms that struck Florida. But if there's any advantage to be had, it probably goes to the president.
Both candidates postponed Florida campaign appearances because of Hurricane Frances (search), but Bush was able to use the power of incumbency to fly in, survey the damage and reassure storm-battered residents.
Bush made his third trip to Florida in 31/2 weeks on Wednesday. He helped distribute packs of bottled water, bags of ice, food and brought $2 billion in fresh emergency assistance. Images of Bush hoisting supplies into a line of idling cars and urging residents to "Hang in there," were shown repeatedly on local television news.
After Charley hit last month, Bush rode through ravaged downtown Punta Gorda by motorcade, stopping to talk to residents. One victim who lost her bakery and whose home was severely damaged quipped that, "It would have been nice if he put on a pair of gloves and helped us."
Kerry visited a week after Charley, though all he could offer were hugs and conversation. He issued a statement after Frances expressing concern for residents and encouraging the public to support relief agency efforts.
Bush's campaign and state Republican leaders are being careful not to link any role Bush plays in the recovery to his re-election, saying they are not asking for nor receiving his schedule for post-hurricane trips, nor interfering in any way.
"It's hard to gauge what, if any advantage, a president would have in coming to Florida to deal with hurricane relief efforts. That being said, I think it's important that Floridians see action rather than words," said Joseph Agostini, spokesman for the state Republican Party. "If this results in political gain, then so be it, but that is not the focus of the relief efforts."
Florida decided the contested 2000 election in Bush's favor by 537 votes, and the president is campaigning hard to win here again by a larger margin. Both candidates wants its 27 electoral votes, the fourth-biggest prize on the road to the 270 votes needed to win the White House. The visit Wednesday was Bush's 27th as president.
Likewise, Kerry's campaign is saying little about the storms and politics. He has made eight visits this year.
"Now is not a time where we want to speculate about politics or political impacts," said Kerry campaign spokesman Matthew Miller. "The entire state is focused on recovery and that's appropriate."
But both sides privately debate how the hurricanes will affect the outcome on Nov. 2.
While video of the president handing out supplies looks good, many Floridians were glued to television coverage of the hurricanes last week instead of Bush's speech at the Republican convention.
And while a quick federal response with supplies and money is appreciated now, anyone still having problems with insurance claims come November is likely to direct their ire toward the administration in Washington.
For now, though, Bush gets to play the part of caring leader, while Kerry stands by.
"Unfortunately, though, I think the president will continue to travel to Florida using taxpayer dollars and it gives him an opportunity to let him be seen in a swing state," said Florida Democratic Party Chairman Scott Maddox. "It gives the incumbent a decided advantage."
It also doesn't hurt Bush that brother Jeb, Florida's governor, has had a big presence in damaged areas and during televised briefings about the storms and the state's recovery efforts.
Still, it's unclear how the hurricanes will play in voters' minds.
"Since we had two of them and we may have a third one, I just don't know if the voters in Florida are paying much attention to things politically right now," said David Johnson, a Republican political strategist. "It's too early to tell any kind of political impact this might have."