Houston — After primaries in Wisconsin and Kansas this week, the presidential contest swings south briefly to Louisiana April 5. It then turns north to Pennsylvania later in the month.
The Southern "detour" is not expected to slow the candidacies of front-runners Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. Both are considered to have comfortable leads in the state by Louisiana party officials and political analysts, who say they think that only major upsets in Wisconsin or Kansas four days before could alter the picture. There are no current statewide polls rating the candidates.
However, the reasons given for their respective strengths are sharply different. Mr. Reagan, whose major opponent on the Republican ballot is George Bush, is generally regarded as having deep support that goes back many years. He has campaigned for Republicans in Louisiana since the early 1960s and is credited by many with playing a part in building the GOP in this predominantly Democratic state. (Gov. David Treen, elected last December, is the first Republican to win that office since Reconstruction.)
President Carter, on the other hand, is under considerable fire in Louisiana for his handling of the economy and energy issues. Political analysts characterize much of his support as "lukewarm" and often the result of a feeling that his opponent, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, is a worse alternative. Mr. Carter also is credited with having a much stronger campaign organization than the senator.
California Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. is on the Democratic primary ballot, but there is no discernable support for him in Louisiana.
"There is no way I can openly be for Carter, but I will vote for him," explains one Democratic state representative from an area that derives much of its income from the energy industry. This politician says the President's failure to dismantle all federal control over energy prices and the oil-import fee are widely unpopular in Louisiana, a major energy-producing state.
At stake in the state's first presidential preference primaries are 31 delegates for the Republicans and 51 for the Democrats. the primaries are closed, meaning no crossover voting is allowed.
The Republican race may heat up this week, with scheduled campaign visits by both Mr. Reagan and George Bush. Those campaigning for Mr. Bush are portraying him as the most electable Republican next fall in an attempt to garner support that swelled for Gerald Ford when it appeared he would enter the presidential race several weeks ago.
A March 14 Shreveport Journal poll of the city's metropolitan area -- one of the most heavily Republican regions in the state -- found Mr. Ford favored by 37 percent of those surveyed. Mr. Reagan was favored by 32 percent and Mr. Bush by 11 percent.
A Bush campaign official in Shreveport, conceding the deep loyalty Mr. Reagan had among Louisiana Republicans, said: "We are asking people to vote with their heads, not with their hearts."
Governer Treen has not endorsed any Republican candidate.
Political scientist Edward Renwick of the Loyola University Institute of Politics in New Orleans says that in polls he has conducted locally and statewide, Louisiana voters consistently rated President Carter's job performance lower than his ratings in comparable national polls. Typically, 50 percent of the registered voters polled by Mr. Renwick give the President a negative rating.
Still, he expects the President to be the victor in the Democratic primary. "But I'll bet the turnout is very low, reflecting the unpopularity of both [ Democratic] candidates," he predicts.