(Adds Clinton reaction)
By Steve Holland
NEW ORLEANS, April 24 (Reuters) - Republican U.S. presidential candidate John McCain on Thursday sharply criticized the Bush administration's handling of Hurricane Katrina and vowed, "Never again."
McCain, putting some distance between himself and fellow Republican President George W. Bush, said if he had been president during the 2005 catastrophe he would have immediately visited New Orleans during the initial shock aftermath of the killer storm.
"I'm just saying I would've landed my airplane at the nearest Air Force base and come over personally," he said.
Two days after the hurricane made landfall in August 2005, when immediate recovery efforts were chaotic, Bush surveyed the damage during a fly-over in Air Force One while returning from a trip to the West Coast.
On Thursday, McCain went on a tour of the lower Ninth Ward, a New Orleans neighborhood still struggling to recover from Katrina 2 1/2 years after the storm struck.
"I want to assure the people of the Ninth Ward, the people of New Orleans, the people of this country: Never again, never again will a disaster of this nature be handled in the terrible and disgraceful way it was handled," McCain said.
Later, talking to reporters on his campaign bus, McCain said "all levels of government are to blame for the catastrophe that took place."
"I'm not specifically singling the president out ... but he shares the blame, obviously," he said.
In Washington, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Bush "absolutely took responsibility for any failing on the part of the federal government."
"But at the same time there were problems at the state and local levels, as well, which they have admitted to," she said.
Biding his time while Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton fight over who will face him in the November election, McCain is trying this week to appeal to moderate voters by visiting places left behind by U.S. economic growth.
Campaigning in North Carolina, Clinton said McCain had suggested tearing down the Ninth Ward.
"The difference between Sen. McCain and myself is I have a long record of fighting to rebuild the Gulf and helping the citizens who live along the Gulf who were left to their own devices by their government," Clinton said in Asheville.
McCain repudiated comments from a Texas television preacher, John Hagee, who has said God punished New Orleans with Hurricane Katrina for planning a gay-pride parade. Hagee has endorsed McCain.
"It's nonsense, it's nonsense, and it's nonsense," McCain told reporters after the liberal group MoveOn.org protested what it called McCain's "embrace" of Hagee.
McCain said he does not accept the views of everyone who endorses him. He said he appreciated Hagee's support for Israel.
The Arizona senator has made cutting government spending a top reason why he should be elected in November.
But he still said he supported billions of dollars of spending to strengthen New Orleans' levee system and rebuild the city.
The Democratic National Committee accused McCain of voting against emergency funding for the area.
"When John McCain is campaigning in New Orleans, will he explain to Gulf Coast voters why he voted against emergency funding to the area and against giving victims of Katrina access to Medicaid and unemployment benefits?" the DNC asked in an e-mail to reporters.
McCain said any such votes were against legislation that included "wasteful, pork-barrel spending" with projects that did not go through normal congressional review.
He said the United States should be prepared for more fierce storms because he believes global warming is creating conditions that are leading to more extreme weather. (Additional reporting by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Mohammad Zargham) (To read more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online at blogs.reuters.com/trail08/)