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Louisiana Democrats Look to Choose New Leader

Even before Hurricane Katrina, the Louisiana Democratic Party was struggling in a conservative state skewing more Republican in its voting tendencies.

Voters overwhelmingly backed President Bush for re-election in 2004 and selected their first Republican U.S. senator since Reconstruction.

Katrina dwarfed those concerns with even bigger problems: nonstop criticism of Democratic Gov. Kathleen Blanco and the scattering of thousands of residents from New Orleans, normally a Democratic stronghold, amid questions about how many will return.

As the Democratic State Central Committee gathered Saturday to choose its third state party chairman in less than three years, many Democrats said they wanted to refocus the party in the increasingly Republican South.

"I think the most polite term that you can use is disarray," said Elliott Stonecipher, a Louisiana pollster and political analyst. "The party apparatus seems to have taken a knockdown, if not a knockout punch."

The last party chairman, Jim Bernhard, resigned less than three weeks after Katrina roared ashore Aug. 29, nine months into the job.

Bernhard said he needed to focus on his engineering and construction company, The Shaw Group Inc., but critics said he needed to resign to avoid allegations of favoritism as Shaw received millions of dollars in post-hurricane rebuilding contracts.

Bernhard had replaced Mike Skinner, a former U.S. attorney who left the chairmanship after a series of disappointments in the 2004 congressional elections, including the election of Republican David Vitter to the U.S. Senate.

On paper, the party is still dominant, with about 1.6 million Democratic voters in Louisiana to 694,000 Republicans, according to January voter registration numbers from the secretary of state's office. About 600,000 are registered with other party affiliations.

However, Democratic voter rolls are shrinking while the number of registered Republications has grown in recent years.

Democratic Party spokesman Andrew Koneschusky said he thinks GOP gains in Louisiana are overstated and that Democrats can regain their footing by talking about the issues that unite them.

"I firmly don't believe (Republicans) have the better product. I think in recent years they've had better marketing," Koneschusky said.

Katrina muddied the political scene by dispersing voters to other states, making accurate polls and easy campaigns nearly impossible.

Stonecipher said the Democratic Party needs New Orleans' black voters, who usually vote heavily Democratic, to return in large numbers.

James Carville, national Democratic strategist and a Louisiana native, said the response from the Republican-led Congress and White House to the hurricane damage and the needs of the people can boost support for Democrats in Louisiana.

"The way they've gotten the back of the hand from this administration, I don't see why people would want to vote Republican right now," Carville said.