NEW ORLEANS – Wielding hammers, crowbars and shovels, Democrats plan to clean out hurricane-ravaged homes in this slowly recovering city, a project designed to highlight the party's criticism of the Bush administration.
The choice of New Orleans for the Democratic National Committee meeting that begins Thursday was part of a political calculation, as is a three-day agenda for the 400 delegates that combines party business with community service.
Eight months after Hurricane Katrina and the widespread criticism of the administration's response, Democrats hope their reconstruction work leaves an image with voters that lasts through the congressional midterm elections.
"It's reinforcing an impression that is widely held among the public and one that will be a critical theme for Democrats across the country — namely that this administration is dangerously incompetent," said Steve McMahon, a Democratic strategist and a longtime adviser to party chairman Howard Dean.
Republicans chalked up the Democrats' New Orleans meeting to grandstanding.
"I'm not sure what the Democrats hope to gain except cheap political points at the expense of Louisiana and the White House," said Glen Bolger, a GOP strategist and pollster.
A recent Associated Press-Ipsos poll showed that nearly six in 10 Americans disapprove of Bush's handling of the relief effort for Katrina victims. By a 49-33 margin, respondents favored Democrats over Republicans when asked which party should control Congress.
Republicans currently control both the House and Senate, but a lobbying scandal and public discontent over the Iraq war have weakened the GOP. The president's dismal approval ratings also have taken a toll on the party's standing.
Democrats feel they have benefited from the Republican woes, and party strategists hope that venturing to New Orleans, still in disarray eight months after the storm hit, will strengthen the party's argument that a change in power is necessary.
"For the American people, Katrina is one of the biggest symbols that this government doesn't work for their interests," said Jenny Backus, a Democratic consultant.
The strategists also said that meeting in New Orleans injects tourist dollars into a fragile economy, sends an important message that the city is open for business and allows the party to identify with part of its base.
New Orleans' population was mostly black before the hurricane. While many residents have returned to the city, some Democrats are sensitive to changes in the political landscape because thousands of voters remain scattered across other states.
The meeting runs through Saturday, the same day the city holds its nonpartisan primary election for mayor. It's possible that the city may elect its first white leader in three decades.
Dean will help in the cleanup process and give a keynote speech that is expected to criticize the administration's reconstruction efforts while emphasizing the Democratic party's commitment to rebuilding the Gulf Coast.
Post-hurricane New Orleans "is not just a symbol of Bush's incompetence but it's also a reminder that we can't leave our fellow Americans behind," Karen Finney, a party spokeswoman, said.
Republicans accuse their counterparts of exploiting a tragedy in an election year.
"While President Bush maintains an unwavering commitment to rebuilding the Gulf Coast, Democrats remain just as committed to political posturing for short-term gain," said Tracey Schmitt, a Republican National Committee spokeswoman.
Groups of Democratic delegates will clean up lawns and clean out, stabilize and demolish homes in disrepair. Others will distribute clothing and other necessities to victims and pack groceries for the needy.
Additionally, Democrats plan to take up a few of their own housekeeping matters.
At least eight states seeking to hold presidential primaries and caucuses early in 2008 — along with Iowa and New Hampshire — will make their case to the party's rules committee.
Also, representatives from three major cities — Orlando, Fla., Denver and Minneapolis — lobbying to host the Democratic convention in August 2008 plan events to drum up support.