NEW ORLEANS – Howard Dean, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, stood amid the soggy ruins of a devastated neighborhood here Friday and declared that Republicans would pay the price in the midterm elections for the Bush administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina.

“This is a searing, burning issue and I think it’s going to cost George Bush his legacy and it’s going to cost the Republicans the House and the Senate and maybe very well the presidency in the next election,” Dean said. “People will never forget this.”

Eight months after Katrina struck, top Democratic leaders from across the nation traveled to New Orleans for the party’s annual spring meeting. The locale, specifically chosen to highlight the wreckage that remains across this battered city, was designed by Democrats to provide a symbolic image for the fall campaign.

“I’m surprised that the place still looks this way,” said Dean, resting his foot near two rusted-out cars in a now-vacant neighborhood. “I hate to be partisan at a time like this, but this is why the Republicans are going to be out of business. Nine months after the hurricane to have this? This is ridiculous.”

The politics of Katrina, though, are a complicated mix here in New Orleans as the city prepares Saturday to hold its first mayoral election since the hurricane.

The incumbent fighting to keep his job, Mayor C. Ray Nagin, is a Democrat, as are nearly all of his two dozen rivals. Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, also a Democrat, has been loudly criticized by those inside and outside her party for her response to the storm.

When asked whether Democrats bore a share of the liability, Dean declared: “In a disaster this size, everybody has responsibility, but it ends up in the federal government’s lap and they dropped the ball.”

Louisiana Republican Party chairman Roger Villere Jr. rebuked Dean for his “attempt to use this tragedy for a partisan leg-up.”

“While President Bush has shown an unwavering commitment to rebuilding the Gulf Coast region,” Villere said, “many Democrats have foregone good taste and openly exploited the natural disaster for personal political gain.”

But Democrats gathering in New Orleans said they believed a winning theme of their fall election campaign would be that Republicans in Washington have eroded a sense of community across the country by favoring the rich and ignoring the needs of ordinary Americans.

“They are the party of selfishness and self-absorption,” Dean said, telegraphing his message to the party’s executive committee earlier Friday. “We are the party that believes we are all in this together – every American.”

So Dean and dozens of Democratic officials traded their business attire for white T-shirts and work shoes and traveled by bus to neighborhoods across the Lower 9th Ward. At the end of Derbigny Street, less than a mile from a failed levee, stood what remained of the brick home Vincent Copper built in 1971.

Copper, a 68-year-old retired shipyard operator, stood as Dean and other volunteers carried several wheelbarrow loads of crumbled drywall and other debris from the one-story home. Copper, who has been living in temporary housing near the city’s airport, said he hopes to rebuild in the same location.

When asked what he thought of the pace of the cleanup and the criticism voiced by Dean, he showed not a hint of partisanship as he declared: “It’s been slow, but Rome wasn’t built in a day.”

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