- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 2, 2006

NEW ORLEANS — Visiting Louisiana and Mississippi has become increasingly important for politicians considering a White House bid.

Although New Hampshire and Iowa hold the first-in-the-nation presidential primary and caucuses, the Gulf Coast region ravaged by Hurricane Katrina has emerged as a crucial stop for 2008 contenders.

Sen. George Allen, Virginia Republican, recently walked amid the rubble of what were once homes in New Orleans neighborhoods. Others interested in the presidency also have taken a tour.

“If you are going to be a serious, credible politician, you are going to have to be able to talk intelligently about what Katrina did to this region, and the first step in that is going to be to come and visit now,” said Brian Brox, assistant professor of political science at Tulane University.

Mr. Allen pledged to help New Orleans because he views it as a unique American city.

“I don’t think that by 2008 this is all going to be built back,” he told The Washington Times on June 22 before taking a damage survey by helicopter.

Wearing his signature cowboy boots, Mr. Allen stood atop piles of debris in homes that had been destroyed by Lake Pontchartrain’s floodwaters.

“It’s just so heartbreaking,” he said. “If this were a carpet-bombing in a war, you couldn’t have more devastation.”

Sen. Mary L. Landrieu has hosted dozens of other lawmakers here, but the Louisiana Democrat is reaching out especially to potential presidential candidates, telling them: “You’ve got to see what’s not working, so hopefully, if you get to be president, you can help fix it.”

Other Louisianans agree that seeing is believing.

“There’s nothing more effective than showing people like this. You just can’t tell from TV,” said Sen. David Vitter, Louisiana Republican.

Mr. Allen said smelling the mud and listening to survivors helped him realize the magnitude of the situation and that he was particularly moved by the vast number of family-owned shops and small businesses left in ruins.

After touring the flood-ravaged lower 9th Ward and St. Bernard Parish, he wondered aloud how the neighborhoods could be rebuilt in a place that is “tempting nature.”

“It is literally decimated. People cannot live in places that are dangerous,” Mr. Allen said.

Mr. Allen, facing a tougher-than-expected re-election battle in the fall, has been criticized for traveling outside Virginia as he simultaneously explores a White House bid. The senator insisted that the New Orleans trip was necessary as he votes on recovery funding and serves on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which is tackling coastal issues after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Mr. Allen was briefed on the challenges of the coastal wetlands. He said New Orleans should be able to share in the royalties from deep-sea energy exploration.

Both Mr. Allen and Sen. Evan Bayh, Indiana Democrat, evoked presidential themes at a press conference with Mrs. Landrieu and Mr. Vitter.

“We’re all neighbors, and Americans need to stick together,” Mr. Allen said.

Mr. Bayh called the rebuilding efforts a “test of America,” adding: “We need to learn the lessons of this disaster.”

They were briefly mentioned in the next day’s paper, but some television news reports didn’t mention their names or presidential ambitions. Observers note that the photos will remain.

“Just like kissing pigs here in Iowa, it’s a great photo opportunity,” said Steffen Schmidt, a political science professor at Iowa State University.

Former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, who has been mentioned as a Democratic presidential candidate, was in New Orleans last week on a fact-finding mission to see how he could help with children’s health care challenges. He took with him Virginia specialists.

After Katrina hit, Mr. Warner sent his chief of staff to help New Orleans officials.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Democrat who also took the Gulf Coast tour with Mrs. Landrieu, has called for an independent investigation of the failed government response to the hurricane.

Political observers said that theme will work for 2008 presidential candidates from both parties. Republicans can say Democratic state and local officials failed to demonstrate proper leadership, while Democrats can criticize blunders made by the Bush administration and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Mr. Schmidt said.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., Delaware Democrat, visited New Orleans in March but expressed reservations beforehand that it would seem like “we’re all down there grandstanding.”

“The risks are real in terms of looking like they are being exploitive,” said Linda Fowler, a government professor at Dartmouth College.

Other potential presidential hopefuls who have toured the damage in New Orleans include: Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, Republican Sens. Sam Brownback of Kansas and John McCain of Arizona, and Democratic Sens. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut and John Kerry of Massachusetts.

Sen. Russ Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat, plans a visit this month.

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