WASHINGTON – Hurricane Katrina convulsed the nation with its massive destruction. Now Democrats believe it could wreak havoc again in a tide of voter resentment that could sweep Republicans from power.
On the verge of Katrina's one-year anniversary, Democrats from New Orleans to New Haven, Conn., to New York are launching a coordinated political assault on the Bush administration's response to the devastation that struck the Gulf Coast.
Democratic lawmakers began arriving in the stricken region Thursday, making a stand that will culminate Monday when about 20 House Democrats convene in Bay St. Louis, Miss., for a town hall meeting. Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana plans to deliver the Democratic response to President Bush's Saturday radio address.
Party leaders sense that the Bush administration's performance in the aftermath of last year's hurricanes and lingering problems rebuilding the region are as politically damaging to the president — and by extension, other Republicans — as the war in Iraq.
"The bad thing is that no matter what happens in Iraq, Katrina is done," Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean said in an interview Thursday. "It happened. You can't undo it. It's a huge scar."
The Bush administration, acting quickly ahead of the Democratic campaign, plans to use the anniversary to make its case that the region is on the mend. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings was in New Orleans on Thursday to announce more than $60 million in international donations for Gulf Coast schools and universities.
Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez was to be in New Orleans on Friday to portray the city as "open for business" and to attend the reopening of a Home Depot store damaged during the hurricane.
Bush scheduled a visit to the region next week to tour on Monday a storm-hit neighborhood in Mississippi and deliver a speech on the rebuilding effort. On Tuesday, the anniversary of Katrina's landfall, the president is to attend a prayer service in New Orleans.
The White House, sensitive to perceptions of foot dragging, issued a one-year anniversary fact sheet stressing that "rebuilding will take time."
"The one-year anniversary is not a finish line," the statement said.
An Associated Press-Ipsos poll conducted Aug. 7-9 found that 67 percent of those surveyed disapproved of Bush's handling of the Katrina disaster. Pollsters from both parties say the hurricane's immediate aftermath, with its scenes of chaos, desperate refugees and response delays came at a particularly vulnerable time for Bush.
"Katrina gives people who already dislike the president another reason for disliking him," said pollster Tony Fabrizio, a Republican.
Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg, however, said Katrina was a "seminal event" in Bush's public opinion plunge.
"The anniversary is going to be a reminder to a lot of people of how unprepared our government was to deal with a natural disaster," Greenberg said. "I don't think that's good for the people in power."
Dean said the public may not even need a reminder.
"People lost confidence in the president after Katrina and the president never recovered and regained the trust of the American people," he said.
House Democrats on Thursday accused the administration of poorly managing the recovery effort, saying 70 percent of $10 billion in recovery and reconstruction funds were awarded to contractors without competitive bids.
"There is no question that incompetence by the Republican administration and their leaders in Congress, the lack of open government and honest leadership is a campaign issue," said Rep. Henry Waxman of California, the top Democrat on the House Government Reform Committee.
In New Orleans on Thursday, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada said after a tour that the city needs a massive public works project to rebuild it physically and economically.
"For as much money as we spend in one week, one week, in Iraq — $3 billion — we would create 150,000 jobs in America," he said. "If we spend it all along here in New Orleans, that would be 150,000 high-paying jobs. That's where we have to go."
Bush and his fellow Republicans aren't the only ones being pushed onto the defensive. In Connecticut, Democratic Senate candidate Ned Lamont used the Katrina anniversary to criticize Sen. Joe Lieberman, the incumbent Democrat who is running as an independent, for being one of the lead architects in the creation of the Homeland Security Department.
Democratic strategists believe Katrina also gives Democratic candidates the ability to counter Republican criticism that Democrats are soft on terrorism. Republicans have typically rated better than Democrats with the public in fighting terrorism, an edge that helped the GOP win in 2002 and 2004.
Katrina, Greenberg said, "emboldens Democrats to push back in a way that they did not in 2002 and in 2004."
Katrina especially angered black Americans, a core bloc in the Democratic coalition. The AP-Ipsos poll found that only 17 percent of minorities approve of Bush's handling of Katrina.
"Katrina ended any effective ability by Republicans to appeal to African-Americans," Dean said.