It's down to the wire in New Orleans' mayoral race

Mayor Nagin and two white challengers are locked in a tight contest. Race is an issue.

Every minute counts in the race for mayor of New Orleans, and Ron Forman is making sure he gets the most out of his 16-hour days.

Between campaign stops, he heads for a nearby coffee shop. "We have to get active on Saturday," he tells customers standing in line. "This is our chance to rebuild the city."

When he finishes with the line, he goes behind the counter and begins chatting with the workers.

It's improvised, hurried, and unpredictable, just like everything else in this hurricane-scrambled race. On the eve of the election - one of the most unusual for a major city in US history - it comes down to this. The black incumbent and two white challengers are locked in a tight contest where race is playing a dominant role.

The outcome is unpredictable. About the only thing that political observers agree on is that a runoff election looks inevitable.

"This is an unprecedented election," says Silas Lee, a New Orleans-based pollster. "That's why there is so much of it we can't speculate on."

To try to bring some clarity to the election, two Tulane University political scientists released a poll this week. It showed Louisiana Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu leading with 25.9 percent of the respondents' vote. Mayor Ray Nagin was second with 21.4 percent. Mr. Forman, president of the Audubon Nature Institute, took third with 17.9 percent.

Mr. Landrieu is the son of the city's last white mayor, almost 30 years ago. As a former state legislator, he has a large number of contacts and plenty of political leadership and name recognition. He is also seen as the most liberal of the three.

Mayor Nagin is the only African-American in the top three and has been in office since 2002. He has received both accolades and admonishment for his leadership after hurricane Katrina. He says now is the time for experienced leadership.

Forman is a skilled fundraiser who has successfully steered many city projects to completion. He is considered to be the most pro-business of the three.

What is making things difficult, says Brian Brox, one of the Tulane pollsters, is that over 17 percent of respondents say they are still undecided. Another 17.3 percent are voting for one of the other 20 candidates who are also on the ballot. Most of those candidates are political newcomers.

"The other candidates are really just playing spoiler now," says Professor Brox. "And because support is so close among the top three, even a thousand votes could shift the election."

Political experts predict that no one will get a majority vote and the race will end up in a runoff on May 20.

Even though there are many hard issues to address, people are still voting on the "soft issues, which people normally do vote on," says Susan Howell, director of the Survey Research Center at the University of New Orleans. Among those soft issues: "Is this someone I think I can trust?" and "Who is the stronger leader?"

And while she doesn't hear a common theme among whites, she definitely does among blacks.

"Among African-Americans, it's 'We have to keep the black mayor. He's the man in the race,' " she says. "Black people are much more out front about the meaning of this election for their community."

Even though Nagin was swept into power by a majority white vote last time around, "that is ancient history," Dr. Howell says. "The racial coalition has flipped completely, and that is purely a function of the circumstances."

In fact, the Tulane poll shows that 43.3 percent of African-American respondents would vote for Nagin and only 5.1 percent of white respondents would vote for him.

"The fact that there are viable white candidates in this election means that whites who may not want to admit that they are voting on race can do so without thinking they are voting on race," says Brox.

He believes a runoff between Nagin and either one of the two top white candidates would help Nagin because so many African-Americans are voting along racial lines.

But Dr. Lee believes a runoff between Nagin and Landrieu would favor Landrieu because his family has long ties to the African-American community. His father desegregated city hall when he was mayor.

But it may be too early to speculate on the final outcome. The city's electorate changes every day as more people move back into the city. Half are still living somewhere else with little information on the campaign. Those who have returned are predominately white, in a city that used to be predominately black.

Francisco Lopez, who is working the coffee-shop register, already has made up his mind to vote for Forman. "He's an executive and that's what we need right now."

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