BATON ROUGE, La. – Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton criticized the Bush administration's response to Hurricane Katrina and pledged Saturday to funnel more federal aid to the still-recovering Gulf Coast if elected.
Speaking to the National Conference of Black Mayors, Clinton and Sen. Sen. Barack Obama both took President Bush to task, although Obama focused mostly on the Iraq war and Clinton on domestic issues.
Clinton and Obama are leading the pack in early polls measuring the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Clinton said she was angered when she saw images of New Orleans residents on their rooftops, begging to be rescued from the floodwaters that followed the August 2005 hurricane. She said Bush's response was a display of "incompetence."
"It is a great injustice that you would deny the resources to your own people, but that shouldn't surprise us, because many people are invisible to this president," she said in a morning speech punctuated with applause.
Obama's appearance later in the day was moved to a much larger venue than the conference room in which Clinton spoke.
Organizers said the move to an arena was necessitated by a high level of interest in hearing him among reporters and conference attendees.
The size of the crowd, which gave Obama several standing ovations, wasn't lost on him. "I wish I could say it was me, but it's mostly that people are yearning for change," he said.
While Clinton spoke of challenges facing mayors nationwide, she did not mention New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin. Obama mentioned him at the outset, saying Nagin has "been going through so much for so long."
Obama said the Senate would have needed just 16 votes to override Bush's veto of an Iraq war spending bill that set a timetable for U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq.
"I don't want to name names, but there's a Republican senator from Louisiana who needs to change their vote," Obama said in an obvious reference to Sen. David Vitter (news, bio, voting record). The other senator from Louisiana is a Democrat.
But Obama was speaking hypothetically since the House failed to override Bush's veto on Wednesday, making a Senate vote moot.
The Bush administration has said that more than $110 billion has been committed to the Gulf Coast for rebuilding since the 2005 hurricanes. Yet, there continues to be fingerpointing among local, state and federal officials over the pace of recovery — sluggish in areas, including New Orleans — and disbursement of aid dollars.
A spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, Amber Wilkerson, said the Bush administration was "focused on offering real solutions to rebuild the Gulf Coast," while Clinton was "pandering and politicizing this critical issue."
There did not appear to be any additional security at the event, which came a day after a judge ordered a Louisiana State University student, accused of planning an attack against Clinton, held on $1 million bond.
She and Obama are the only two candidates at this stage who receive Secret Service protection.
Obama visited students at Pierre A. Capdau Charter School in New Orleans later Saturday. He called on the federal government to invest $250 million in the city's schools, saying they were neglected even before Hurricane Katrina.
"When it comes to education in New Orleans, it's not enough to just clean up damage from the storm. We have to clean up the damage from before the levees broke," Obama said.
Asked what he would do for the city if elected, Obama said he would hope that the Bush administration would have addressed many of city's the larger concerns by January 2009. "But I'm not optimistic," he said.
He said he hopes that at the least, the federal government will waive the 10 percent match for Federal Emergency Management Administration money, as it did for the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and for hurricanes which have hit Florida.
"It boggles the mind that we haven't done it here," he said.