One last Senate campaign - gumbo style

Louisiana vote Saturday tests strength of GOP momentum.

As Republican donors stream through the lobby of the swank Fairmont hotel - where Christmas decorations have transformed the ceiling into a canopy of cotton "snow" - the sense of significance is palpable.

It was here that legendary populist Huey Long headquartered his campaign back in 1928, mapping out a winning coalition of small farmers and workers that would propel him into the governor's seat and shape Louisiana politics for decades to come.

Now, as the site of a high-profile campaign stop by President Bush, the Fairmont may play a key role in another transforming election: one that could send a Republican to the Senate from Louisiana for the first time since the days of Reconstruction.

A GOP win in Saturday's election would also represent a final step in a steady Republican march across the Deep South that started decades ago and gained momentum this fall in states such as Georgia, South Carolina, Texas, and Alabama.

For most of the nation, of course, Campaign 2002 ended on Nov 7. But Louisiana has always prided itself on being different when it comes to politics. Candidates vie in an open primary on Election Day, with the top two entering a runoff if no one gets a majority.

This year, Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu failed to win 50 percent of the vote, so for the past month she has waged a brutal overtime matchup against GOP State Elections Commissioner Suzanne Haik Terrell. Senator Landrieu began the runoff with a commanding lead, but recent polls show a dead heat.

The outcome won't affect control of the Senate, since Republicans already have at least a one-seat majority. But with such close margins, every Senate seat counts, and both parties are fighting hard for this final seat. So much money has poured into the state that locals have taken to joking about the "second Louisiana Purchase."

The campaign is compelling, too, simply as "the election after the elections" - in this case a test of the GOP's momentum, says Susan Howell, a political scientist at the University of New Orleans.

In many ways, this race has been directly shaped by what happened Nov. 7 - when Republicans took control of the Senate and gained additional seats in the House. Starting Nov. 8, Senator Landrieu was suddenly running as a member of the minority party. And nationally, momentum shifted even further to the GOP.

"There is this wave of Republican enthusiasm right now, not just in Louisiana, but across America - and Terrell is riding this wave," says Ms. Howell.

A Republican win would further validate the party's electoral gains and add to Mr. Bush's reputation as a formidable campaigner. A Landrieu victory could make the other midterm results seem a little less decisive, and give Democrats a much-needed boost.

Wedged among Republican strongholds such as Texas and Mississippi, Louisiana is one of the last Southern states where the majority of voters are still registered Democrats - a lingering vestige of Huey Long era populism. But the Republican Party has been gaining steady ground here, following the pattern of other Southern states, as more and more conservative whites shift their allegiance. Bill Clinton carried Louisiana in 1996, but Al Gore lost it in 2000.

Republicans here express a growing excitement - about the race, and about the party's future. "The Republican Party is developing here," asserts Michael Toso, a New Orleans real estate appraiser who has come to the Fairmont to see Bush.

YET party affiliation still tends to be relatively loose, and is often secondary to other voter concerns, say analysts. With poverty high here, victory often depends less on ideology than on practical appeals and strong personality. "Candidates running in populist states like Louisiana need to do two things," says Jim Farwell, a Republican consultant based in New Orleans, who was Newt Gingrich's media strategist. "First, they need to show that they have the power and savvy to deliver for their state. Second, they need to show strength of character in public office. The South is a place that likes to elect titans."

Certainly, Louisiana has had its share of attention-getting politicians - though the publicity they've generated has as often been for negative as for positive reasons. Former Gov. Edwin Edwards, who was recently imprisoned for extortion, is just one of a long line of corrupt officials.

In addition, the state's open primary system has helped launch some extremists from both parties. In 1991, former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke won 32 percent of the vote in the gubernatorial primary, making it to the runoff (where he then lost to Edwards).

Both women in this year's runoff are more moderate than extreme. Indeed, the two have taken similar positions on an array of issues from tax cuts to homeland security. But the race has also taken on a strikingly nasty tone.

Ironically, despite being a relative unknown before the primary election, Terrell has in some ways become the "Washington insider" of the race. An array of Washington heavyweights have come down to stump for her, from George Bush Sr. to Senator-elect Elizabeth Dole.

By contrast, Landrieu has had virtually no national Democrats campaign on her behalf, aside from the state's senior senator, John Breaux. But her name has a certain local star power of its own. Her father, Moon Landrieu, was a popular mayor of New Orleans and throughout the city, locals will repeatedly tell you, "she comes from good people."

"Her family was always for the working people," says Joe Bertucci, a construction union official in New Orleans.

THE key to the race, both sides agree, will be who gets voters to the polls. Republicans are trying to boost participation among conservative whites - bringing in Georgia GOP chairman Ralph Reed, who engineered a major get-out-the-vote operation among rural white voters in his state - while Democrats focus intently on the black vote.

"This race is clearly about turnout," says Senator Breaux. "If turnout is high enough in the African-American community, Mary wins. If it's not, she doesn't."

Landrieu has been campaigning hard in black churches across the state. But some black leaders have criticized her publicly for failing to address issues that concern the minority community.

Complicating Landrieu's task is the fact that the state's white voters tend to be fairly conservative. Louisiana is heavily Roman Catholic, and abortion has been a prominent issue. (Landrieu is pro-choice, but favors certain restrictions. Terrell is antiabortion, but has been accused of changing her position.)

The struggle for Landrieu - as for other Democratic politicians across the South - is somehow to craft an appeal that will motivate liberal black voters to go to the polls, without losing the support of too many whites at the same time. Democratic losses in Southern states testify to the growing difficulty in holding this kind of coalition together.

Many Democrats argued that the party was too timid in criticizing Bush this fall. And in recent weeks Landrieu has gone from declaring wholehearted support for the president to emphasizing her "independence." She's also begun highlighting areas where the administration's policies have hurt Louisiana, criticizing the president's decision to impose tariffs on foreign steel as costing thousands of jobs.

Speaking at a weatherbeaten union hall down by the docks in New Orleans, Landrieu called attention this week to a rumored trade agreement to allow for greater imports of Mexican sugar, which she says would devastate the local sugar industry. The administration says no such decision has been made.

Yet this more aggressive stance could also backfire in a state where Bush's approval ratings stand in the mid-70s. If Landrieu's tactics fail, it will leave Democrats even less certain how to mount an effective campaign in 2004.

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