NEW ORLEANS — Republican presidential candidate John McCain took stock of still-hurricane-damaged areas of New Orleans on Thursday and declared that if the disaster had happened on his watch, he would have immediately landed at the nearest Air Force base, drawing a sharp contrast to President Bush's handling of the tragedy.
McCain called the response to Hurricane Katrina "a perfect storm" of mismanagement by federal, state and local governments.
The Arizona senator walked a few blocks of the hard-hit Lower 9th Ward, passing tidy rebuilt stucco houses standing next to abandoned structures, their facades still spray-painted with the markings of rescue workers who went door to door nearly three years ago searching for bodies. Government-issued trailers still dot the neighborhood. McCain said his teenage daughter Bridget had been there with a volunteer youth group a few weeks ago to help in the recovery.
"Never again, never again, will a disaster of this nature be handled in the disgraceful way it was handled," McCain declared, a pledged he repeated over and over during the day.
McCain is campaigning this week in what he calls "forgotten" areas of the country, and he assured residents that their situation was not lost on him.
"I've been going to places that are perhaps very cynical about government," he told students during a town hall at Xavier University. Trying to reach out for the votes of Democrats and independents, he pledged to be a president who would take action to erase that cynicism.
"As president of the United States, I'm not going to leave anybody behind," he said.
He said that beyond the most immediate needs of people in New Orleans, such as affordable housing, the top priorities now were to achieve the government's goal to fortify the city against 100-year storms by 2011, and to find a way to protect the region against Category 5 hurricanes.
McCain was unsparing in his criticism of the Bush administration on Katrina, and said members of Congress must share the blame for putting money into pork-barrel projects when those dollars could have been used to fortify the region against disaster. He said his record was clean on that count, with a consistent opposition to wasteful spending.
Without mentioning Bush directly, McCain said that when Katrina struck, "If I had been president, I would have ordered the plane landed at the nearest base and I'd have been over here." He repeated that later, saying, "I would've landed my airplane at the nearest Air Force base and come over personally."
McCain said the missteps of the Bush administration were well-chronicled and undisputed, citing unqualified leaders, poor communication and a failure to recognize the dimensions of the problem.
McCain returned to the same theme in an evening speech prepared for delivery at a business awards dinner in Baton Rouge, saying, "My friends, it is not in our power to turn back hurricanes, but I assure it is within our power to respond to crisis better than this _ and I intend to make sure that happens." He promised to clear away bureaucratic obstacles, establish better lines of communication and make sure emergency operations centers include trained experts from local businesses.
In a conversation with reporters aboard his campaign bus, McCain rejected the notion that he ran any risk of guilt by association with the Bush administration by coming to New Orleans, saying voters would judge him on his own record, not Bush's.
Democrats, however, were happy to draw a connection.
The Democratic National Committee said in a statement that McCain had opposed emergency assistance to the Gulf Coast in Katrina's aftermath and predicted he would be "more of the same Bush-Brownie inaction for the Gulf Coast. And that's the last thing Louisiana _ or the rest of America _ needs." The Brownie reference was to Michael Brown, who was in charge of the Federal Emergency Management Agency when Katrina struck in August 2005.
Katrina, the most costly natural disaster ever to strike the United States, killed more than 1,800 people and displaced more than 250,000. Total damages were estimated at $125 billion.
Members of the liberal group MoveOn.org seized on McCain's trip to criticize him again for refusing to renounce the endorsement of Texas televangelist John Hagee, who has said Hurricane Katrina was God's retribution for homosexual sin. As he has in the past, McCain repudiated the remarks as "nonsense," but he declined to renounce the pastor's endorsement.
(This version CORRECTS McCain's wording to 'I'd have'.)