AN ODD TIME FOR A VISIT…. All indications suggest Hurricane Gustav, now a Category-4 storm, poses a very serious threat to the Gulf Coast. Mandatory evacuations are underway in New Orleans, and the National Guard has been mobilized. Highways out of southern Louisiana have implemented an elaborate contraflow system — all lanes lead north.

It is, to put it mildly, an odd time for a campaign swing.

Likely GOP presidential nominee John McCain and his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, are traveling to Mississippi to check on people getting prepared for Hurricane Gustav.

McKain aides say McCain and his wife Cindy will join Palin in traveling to Jackson, Miss., Sunday at the invitation of Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour. They said the McCains and Palins want to check on preparations because they are concerned about the people threatened by the storm, which is heading through the Gulf of Mexico and threatening the same area ravaged by Hurricane Katrina three years ago. The storm could hit the coast as early as Monday afternoon.

They will receive a briefing at the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency — a permanent operations center monitoring hurricane response.

I’m trying to imagine a reasonable justification for this, but nothing comes to mind. Local officials no doubt have real work to do right now, showing some out-of-state politicians around while preparing a major storm probably isn’t high on the list of priorities. McCain and Palin can get briefings over the phone over via teleconference, suggesting this is more about exploiting a potential disaster for the cameras.

Complicating matters, the Politico added, “McCain was scheduled to deliver his acceptance speech Thursday but now may do so from the devastation zone if the storm hits the U.S. coast with the ferocity feared by forecasters.”

I’m going to hope this is some kind of trial balloon, and that someone on McCain’s staff realizes what a mistake it would be to exploit human suffering for partisan gain. Maybe there’s still some sense of decency left in McCain, and he’ll realize a hurricane’s devastation need not be a rebranding opportunity for the Republican Party.

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Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.