Presidential Candidates Stay Away from the Golden State as Fires Rage

President Bush visited Southern California last week to take an aerial tour of fire-stricken areas and talk with victims, but nearly all the folks who would like to replace President Bush in the White House have stayed away from Southern California. KPCC's Special Correspondent Kitty Felde examines the potential pitfalls for presidential candidates in how they respond to disasters.

Kitty Felde: There's a scene in the 1972 film "The Candidate" where the Senate candidate played by Robert Redford is flying to San Diego for a campaign appearance.

[Dialogue from "The Candidate"]

Felde: The strategists debate the best strategy. Candidate Redford crashes a fire department press conference, which is itself crashed by the arrival of the incumbent in a helicopter.

Barbara O'Conner: Unless candidates have something valuable to add to a disaster relief, they really should stay out of it.

Felde: Barbara O'Connor is director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at Cal State Sacramento.

O'Connor: The level of animus that the public has for politicians in general, and candidates in specific, is pretty high. And so, if you're in the way, unless you're doing something to benefit either the evacuees or the first responders, if you're not going to be at that level of support, just stay the heck out of there.

Felde: Republican Fred Thompson had planned to be in Southern California this week. He's cancelled those plans "out of respect" for those affected by the fires. Thompson's Web page includes a link to relief efforts for California. You'll find similar links on the Web pages of fellow Republicans Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani, and John McCain. Barack Obama says he's asked California supporters to "take time out from campaigning this weekend to assist the relief efforts." His Web page has a link to Governor Schwarzenegger's volunteer page. John Edwards has links to four different groups. Bill Richardson sent $10,000 to California relief efforts, and he sent a pair of New Mexico fire crews, too.

Mark Melman: Well, and Bill Richardson is a governor. He commands resources, and so he's able to send fire crews; nobody in the Senate has a fire crew to send.

Felde: Mark Melman is a Democratic Party strategist. He says the fire disaster is likely to play a political role later on.

Melman: Once the fires are out, and people have real issues, whether it's with the federal government, or with insurance companies, or of other kinds, I think you can expect a policy debate that's potentially real and significant.

Felde: One candidate, Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd, has worked the fire disaster into his stump speech. David Mark, Senior Editor at Politico.com, says Dodd was addressing a group that's already endorsed him, the International Firefighters Association.

David Mark: And he essentially said, California doesn't have enough forces to fight the fire right now – National Guard and other forces, because they're deployed in Iraq, they're stretched so thin, in a war he opposed. It looked to some like he was taking advantage of the situation, like he was trying to blame President Bush for a natural disaster, or at least for not being able to respond. Now, a lot of people in Democratic primary base, people who vote in Democratic primaries, may agree with him on that, but I think for the general public, it's a real dicey proposition.

Felde: For two years now, President Bush has been the target of criticism for federal response to Hurricane Katrina. History Professor John Robert Greene of Cazenovia College in upstate New York says a hurricane played a role in the downfall of Bush's father in 1992. George Bush Sr. was running for re-election against Bill Clinton when Hurricane Andrew slammed into Florida.

John Robert Greene: It came through Florida, and Bush I did not move. He stayed in the White House, and the first person down to Florida was Bill Clinton. And when Clinton arrived in Florida, with the national press corps in tow, it made him seem more compassionate than his opponent. In fact, if memory serves me correctly, even Ross Perot went to Florida before President Bush did.

Felde: Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter is the only presidential candidate to come to California since the wildfires broke out, but he's supposed to be here. He lives in San Diego County, he lost his home in a wildfire four years ago, and he's been trying to bring in more help for firefighters. Every other candidate has stayed away, but they can't stay away from California for long. The voters are here, the money's here, and the presidential primary is here February 5th.