NEW ORLEANS - I helped a presidential candidate fix up a home at Roman and Piety streets in the Upper Ninth Ward on Tuesday.

Not Obama, not McCain, not Clinton, not even Kucinich, for crying out loud. He is Daniel Kingery, who took a break from campaigning in Pennsylvania to offer his strong arms and carpentry skills to hang drywall in a home that had been flooded in August 2005.

That was when the Katrina-whipped Gulf of Mexico pushed water over the ugly-as-its-name Industrial Canal into neighborhoods of modest wood-frame homes,

A 46-year-old pony-tailed, burly, bearded blond, Kingery did most of the work, and most of the sweating, in the sweltering house that earlier was gutted by volunteers. I did most of the questioning and he did most of the answering as he measured, cut and power-drilled drywall into place on exposed wooden studs.

Kingery apologized for talking a lot, but excused himself with a smile by saying, "I am a presidential candidate."

Kingery has no money, he has no organization - he doesn't even have a name for his party because, he explains, that would politicize him, and the way politics is played today is one of the things wrong with America.

First he left his home in Willcox, Ariz., to campaign for president. Then he left the campaign trail to volunteer with Common Ground Relief, which has been fighting the Battle of New Orleans since it was founded by three volunteers, with $50, after Katrina.

They got to the devastated Lower Ninth Ward with food, water and clothing faster than any governmental agency, and then quickly opened a clinic in another stricken neighborhood, Algiers.

I understand why Common Ground must have appealed to Kingery, whose sweat soaked through his T-shirt as he worked in the dark house. Common Ground's Web site talks about "collectives" and "solidarity," which marks it as Marxist. Or Socialist. Or whatever.

When I called from Philadelphia to make arrangements for a visit, Common Ground media-relations man Sakura Kone helped get me get squared away, which led to a chat. Kone argued that reparations for slavery should be paid to African-Americans, and then we waltzed about whether English should be America's "official" language.

That debate aside, Common Ground volunteers have been here busting their butts for three years to help the poor and working class in predominantly African-American communities of the Crescent City. During its peak, from the summer of 2006 through April 2007, Common Ground had 500 volunteers on the ground. They have my respect, if not my agreement with all their ideas.

Volunteers who stay for days or weeks sleep in bunk beds in a chock-a-block Lower Ninth Ward Common Ground headquarters that has computers, but no air conditioners. It's a matter of priorities.

And since Common Ground can feed a volunteer for $20 a week, you know they're not eating at Ruth's Chris or the Commander's Palace.

Kingery stands out among the other volunteers as a weathered oak does among pine saplings. Shortly after the sun rose over Lake Borgne on Tuesday morning, some 30 volunteers gathered for that day's work assignments. Grass-cutting, construction and wetlands restoration were up for grabs. I went with the construction crew.

Nearly all the volunteers were college students or recent grads, from California to New Jersey. Most were white, joined by a dozen African-Americans of all ages from the Shiloh Old Sight Baptist Church in Stafford, Va.

Eneisha Berryman, 17, is with the church group and couldn't be more different from Kingery. She's young, black and not running for president.

The Baptist group - all are friends or relatives - appointed her to speak for them.

"We wanted to help, not just donate things, but work and see a difference," she says outside the house she would soon enter to learn about cutting drywall - and about stifling heat.

"We felt the need was more than back home, to help the people who lost everything," she says. They arrived Monday and will leave later today, no doubt feeling good and closer to God.

Kingery came down on May 13. "I was planning on being gone at the end of last month," he says, bending to pick some dead skin off shins turned fire-engine red by too much sun. He's not sure exactly when he'll leave New Orleans, but he has a presidential debate in Swarthmore July 3 that he says he will not miss.

His experience as a volunteer here has been "a little mixed," he says, with what he calls a surprising lack of communication and cooperation among volunteer groups. In a sad commentary, no one is surprised by fumbling by governmental agencies. Like afternoon thunderstorms here, it's expected.

"In other countries, governments step in to help," but that didn't happen here, says Kingery.

Maybe he'll change that if elected president.

Kingery took time off his presidential campaign to be here. Thom Pepper, 51, Common Ground's operations director, took a year off from his real-world job, selling real estate in Miami.

Like the 40 other organizers, he doesn't draw a salary. No one at Common Ground does. As we talk, an orange tabby named Fidel circles our legs.

Although he seems laid back and smiles, I sense Pepper's core is molten.

"It's a nightmare," he says. "The city's done very little, a lot of money has been spent," but full recovery is somewhere over the rainbow.

"The mayor and the city council have done a poor job," he says. Many of the volunteers buy into the conspiracy theory that the city doesn't want the Lower Ninth Ward to come back.

Some others say that the Lower Ninth shouldn't be rebuilt because it is too vulnerable to another flood. Some say that it is too valuable - and wouldn't a golf course go nicely there? Some say the city's leaders are racist. Some say they are classist.

Pepper says that 90 of the 150 former homeowners in the area surrounding Common Ground's headquarters have been located "and about half want to come back." They should be allowed to, because "this is their home," he says. Common Ground's home is at www.commongroundrelief.org. It could use donations of time, talent, materiel and money. The Battle of New Orleans is far from over. *