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Katrina leaves GOP in need of rebuilding The political fallout from the government's response to Hurricane Katrina is likely to resonate for years.

The images that haunted the nation in recent weeks -- the desperate black faces homeless and hungry in a flooded city -- will stalk American politics for years to come.

President Bush proved that late this week, when he traveled to the hurricane-ravaged wasteland called New Orleans and promised to rebuild the Gulf Coast in a way that wipes out the racial and class inequality that the storm laid bare.

Bush's actions come in the wake of polling data that indicates his first response to the hurricane could be devastating to the Republican Party's attempts to reach out to African-Americans. And it comes amid questions about something that Americans usually take for granted: the competence of the president and his allies.

"Without question, the public is very upset that the people in need didn't get help," said Susan MacManus, a professor of political science at the University of South Florida in hurricane-prone St. Petersburg. "That view is bipartisan."

Indeed, according to an AP-Ipsos poll conducted last week, by a 2-to-1 ratio, Americans think the federal government should have been better prepared for the disaster. Some 55 percent said they felt a deep sense of shame over the federal response and 54 percent blame Bush for what happened.

African-Americans are especially angry about the inundation of New Orleans and its aftermath. According to a poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, only 17 percent of whites think the government would have acted faster if the victims had been white, but two-thirds of blacks feel that way.

The Rev. Richard Stenhouse of Bethel AME Church in Buffalo said blacks note that the government acted fast after hurricanes in other parts of the country.

"The only difference people see is that the people in New Orleans are poor and black," said Stenhouse, who backed New York Gov. George E. Pataki, a Republican, in 2002.

When Pew asked if Bush did all he could to get relief efforts moving, 31 percent of whites said yes while only 11 percent of blacks thought that.

"Basically the polling data supports what people are saying," said Warren K. Galloway, a black Republican who serves as executive assistant to Erie County Executive Joel A. Giambra. "They're looking for a boogeyman and they see George W. Bush as the boogeyman."

Bush seems eager to counter that impression.

On Thursday, he promised to undertake one of the greatest reconstruction efforts ever to rebuild the Gulf Coast.

And in a speech at a memorial service for hurricane victims on Friday, he said: "As we clear away the debris of a hurricane, let us also clear away the legacy of inequality."

Bush tried to do that before, with his self-portrayal as a "compassionate conservative" who appointed blacks to powerful positions in his administration. Doing so helped him boost his share of the black vote by two percentage points in 2004.

But Katrina undid those gains, said Ronald W. Walters, a political science professor at the University of Maryland.

"It's a tremendous opportunity for the Democrats to bring back the black vote," Walters said. "It's a bonanza for them. And it may even have an effect on the midterm elections."

The impact could go beyond racial lines and beyond 2006 and to the presidential election two years later.

"I do think that there's going to be a question of competence," said David Bositis, a senior research associate at the left-leaning Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington. "This happened after we spent all that money on homeland security?"

In theory, such questions could boost the presidential campaign of former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a Republican whose take-charge response to the 9/1 1 attacks made him a national hero.

But the experts interviewed for this story didn't buy into that theory. They said Giuliani's liberal views on abortion and gay rights make him an impossible sell to the Republican base and that the same thing goes for the Pataki's presidential bid.

The analysts offered mixed views on whether the competence issue might boost the White House prospects of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y. -- one of the earliest and most vocal critics of Bush's response to the storm.

On one hand, she could capitalize on the fact that her husband, former President Bill Clinton, handled disasters well. Even William Kristol, a Republican pundit with White House ties, told the New York Times that Bill Clinton would have responded better to Katrina than Bush did.

However, sources said Hillary Clinton remains such a polarizing figure that huge numbers of voters will probably dismiss her comments as partisan sniping.

Bush, with nearly three years of his presidency left, has plenty of time to repair whatever political damage Katrina wreaked.

"None of this is good news for the president, but none of this is irreversible, either," said James E. Campbell, a Republican political scientist at the University at Buffalo.

That's because Katrina left Bush with both a tremendous burden and a tremendous opportunity: the rebuilding of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. Doing the job right could win back the public's faith in his competence and his party.

"This is his opportunity to leave a legacy beyond 9/1 1," Stenhouse said.

e-mail: jzremski@buffnews.com

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