IN a race that may signal whether the Republican tide is continuing to wash across the South, Louisiana voters take the first step Saturday in electing a new governor.
Democrat Edwin Edwards, Louisiana's strongest political figure since Huey Long, is retiring and a near-record field of 16 candidates is scrambling to replace him.
The latest polls show the two top finishers in the state's open primary could both be Republicans - former Gov. Buddy Roemer and state Sen. Mike Foster, handing the statehouse over to the GOP no matter how a runoff turns out.
If that happens, it would be only the second time this century that Louisiana has elected a Republican governor. The election is also being closely watched because it could foreshadow the outcome of a key US Senate race next year and will be a test of the Christian Coalition's strength.
Currently, most polls show Mr. Roemer in the lead, with Senator Foster and Democratic state Treasurer Mary Landrieu in a statistical tie for second place.
But Foster, who just switched from Democrat to Republican in September, has won the support of the Christian right with his antigaming platform. He has momentum - one poll puts him in the lead - and he could surge past both Ms. Landrieu and Roemer by primary day.
"If a Republican wins this time, it will make party-switching respectable," says Bernie Pinsonat of the Southern Media and Opinion Research, a leading Louisiana polling firm. And that, he says, could further undermine the Democrats in Louisiana, even though they maintain a 3-to-1 edge among registered voters.
Still in the race
But another candidate who is very much in the runoff picture is Rep. Cleo Fields, a Baton Rouge Democrat who is the only African-American in the race. Blacks make up 27 percent of the voter registration in Louisiana.
Two more Democrats remain runoff possibilities, although they are regarded as long shots in the closing week of the campaign. They are Lt. Gov. Melinda Schwegmann and businessman-lawyer Phil Preis.
Louisiana elects its officials under an "open primary" system in which all candidates - Democrats, Republicans, and independents alike - run in the same primary. Except in the unlikely event that one candidate gets a majority of the votes cast, the two top finishers will meet in a Nov. 18 general election.
Only once in this century has Louisiana elected a Republican governor, David Treen in 1979. Roemer was elected as a Democrat in 1987 and switched to Republican during his 1991 reelection campaign. He failed to make the runoff, in which Edwards soundly defeated former Ku Klux Klansman and Nazi sympathizer David Duke.
Former Klansman backs Foster
Mr. Duke ran as a Republican, to the dismay of GOP leaders. Duke is now backing Foster, who has declined to disavow his support.
The hottest topic in the closing days of the campaign has been Edwin Edwards. The incumbent hasn't endorsed anybody, but it's no secret that his least favorite candidate is fellow Democrat Landrieu, who mounted a campaign against him before he decided to retire.
There are some former Edwards supporters in almost every camp, but Foster has been taking heat after being spotted at a meeting in New Orleans Oct. 13 with some of the more prominent Edwards backers.
An Edwards connection is considered political poison because everyone in this race is running as a reformer. An aura of scandal has always hovered around Edwards, who has been governor on and off since 1971.
Political insiders say almost any runoff combination is possible involving Roemer, Landrieu, Foster, and Fields. The latest polls showing up to a third of the voters still undecided.
National politics have not been a major issue in the race, although Foster and Roemer have taken potshots at Landrieu for co-chairing President Clinton's successful 1991 Louisiana campaign.
If the runoff pits Landrieu against a Republican, however, that will become a major topic. Landrieu shrugs it off, saying "this election isn't about Clinton. It's about Louisiana."
None of the candidates want to talk about a looming Medicaid crisis, as federal grants continue to dwindle in a state with a disproportionate population of poor people.
The race is is being watched as an indicator for next year's US Senate race here. Longtime incumbent Democratic Sen. J. Bennett Johnston is retiring, and Republicans hope to pick off yet another Deep South seat.
Republicans figure that if they can dominate the governor's race this year, they'll be able to do the same in the 1996 Senate election, which will be fought under the same rules. Democrats feel they'll be in a better position to elect a senator if they can hold onto the statehouse.