The Politics of Katrina

Two years after catastrophic Hurricane Katrina devastated and incapacitated New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, the subject of recovery remains a hot topic.

While two years may be a long time in politics, the images of stranded Americans on their rooftops waiting for rescue and the Bush administration's botched response are seared into the nation's collective memory.

The recovery effort has provided fodder for political candidates aiming to showcase their ideas for rebuilding the area.

"In human terms, this is a real tragedy. But from a political point of view, attacking the president on Katrina is a piñata as big as the Superdome," said Mark Halperin, of Time magazine.

In fact, three major Democratic presidential candidates will be in New Orleans this week. Barack Obama spoke at a church Sunday morning, while Hillary Clinton and John Edwards will arrive Monday. All three have promised to speed up the city's sometimes bumpy recovery.

New Orleans has been embraced most aggressively by Edwards, who announced his candidacy there as a way to emphasize his focus on poverty.

"We need to show that the most powerful nation on the Earth won't stand by and let this continue," he said.

New Orleans also is ground zero in the battle between Obama and Clinton for the critical African-American vote.

"For African Americans, not just on the Gulf Coast region but around the country," Halperin said, "responding to Katrina, showing that you understand the issue, is a big point in this Democratic nomination fight."

The issue is a trickier one for Republican presidential candidates, who may be reluctant to bash one of their own.

Two GOP candidates will come for the anniversary -- Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who has said he was ashamed of the government's response to the storm.

"We've lost credibility, the way we bungled Katrina," Huckabee said.

As for President George Bush, he will be in New Orleans Wednesday for his 13th visit since the storm. For him, what's at stake is not an election, but his legacy.

In campaign 2008, Katrina has not been as big an issue as Iraq or the economy, but it remains an emotional one. And for candidates who are always looking for a way to connect emotionally with voters, it is a real opportunity.