By Mira Oberman
LAFITTE, Louisiana — One day after he was named official flag-bearer of the Republican revolution, Mitt Romney confronted the limits of his small government rhetoric Friday in the storm-ravaged Louisiana Bayou.
As Hurricane Isaac petered out and headed off northwards, Romney jetted in from his nomination convention in Florida to visit the desperate residents of Lafitte, a small flood-damaged community just inland from New Orleans.
There, with the world’s media looking on, he met 22-year-old mother-of-two Ashley Vegas, whose home was destroyed by a 12-foot (four-meter) wall of water, and whose bare feet contrasted oddly with Romney’s suede loafers.
His advice for the suddenly homeless family? Seek a bailout from the US federal government’s disaster agency FEMA by calling its 211 emergency hotline.
Vegas was thankful for the lifeline, open to many in Louisiana since Romney’s opponent President Barack Obama declared a federal emergency there earlier this week, freeing up government rescue funds for beleaguered communities.
“I think he’s a very good man,” Vegas volunteered. “He’s here to help everybody and do what he can.”
Asked by reporters whether she was a Republican or a Democrat, the young woman giggled and said: “My mom would know.”
The FEMA gambit might be the best option for flooded families in Lafitte, but the idea clashed with the message of Romney’s campaign so far, which has focused on celebrating private enterprise and decrying government hand-outs.
When the surprise detour to the Bayou was announced, Democrats were quick to pounce. Senate majority leader Harry Reid said Romney’s trip was the “height of hypocrisy” since Republicans plan to gut the disaster budget.
Romney was also accused of exploiting the disaster to steal a march on Obama, who is not due in Louisiana until Monday, when the huge security detail that travels with an incumbent would not disrupt relief operations.
His campaign dismissed such talk, insisting it was Romney’s duty to see what could be done, to support local people and to receive a briefing from Louisiana state governor Bobby Jindal, a leading Republican.
Romney attended a 45-minute meeting with local officials, and toured a scattered community of simple homes nestling between oak trees draped in curtains of Spanish moss.
In normal times the Lafitte community, home to around 1,500 people, is made up of six square miles of land and two of water, and the floods swept through the homes of poorer residents who could not afford to raise them on stilts.
The visit itself was not plain sailing despite the assistance of National Guard reservists equipped with Blackhawk helicopters.
Two vans in Romney’s motorcade were involved in a minor collision when a press van rear-ended a staff van, leaving the press pool which travels with the motorcade separated from Romney, who headed back to his plane in New Orleans.
No one was injured, according to reporters in the pool. The group abandoned one of the damaged vehicles and tried to catch up with the campaign.
So, on his first day of the general election campaign, did Romney convince?
Michelle Chauncey, a 43-year-owner of a shrimp stall, an entrepreneur who spent “tens of thousands” of dollars of her own money to elevate her home on stilts and thus avoid the worse of the flooding, would seem to be in his target audience.
She is a registered Democrat, but not entirely sold on Obama, fearing that his health reform plan will force citizens to pay private insurance firms, and she took the chance of the visit to talk to the Republican challenger.
“There’s a lot of good things that I think Obama has accomplished in his term,” she conceded. “As for Romney I haven’t heard anything or know anything about him that impresses me.”
“So if I had to choose today as I stepped into a polling place to vote, I’d have to cast a vote for Obama,” she shrugged, pulling an unimpressed face.
Photo of Bobby Jindal and Mitt and Ann Romney via AFP, Frederic J. Brown