Karen Crittenden had just finished eating her baked chicken at the Armed Forces Day luncheon when she spotted Mayor C. Ray Nagin in the crowd.
Dashing up to him, she said, "I just wanted to tell you, you're doing a great job - even if you don't get reelected."
Mayor Nagin beamed, shook her hand, and thanked her before moving on to a throng of other admirers and well-wishers. For Ms. Crittenden's comment not to become prophetic, Nagin needs to draw support from many other African-Americans in Saturday's mayoral runoff election, experts say.
Indeed, the election that will decide who will lead New Orleans in its time of crisis comes down to black versus white.
"All mayoral elections in New Orleans are racially polarized," says Susan Howell, a political scientist at the University of New Orleans. "But the demographic potential to return to a majority-white city is real and that adds to the emotions of this election."
Now, Nagin, who is black, faces off against Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, who is white. The two candidates are scrambling for every vote in an election that will help determine who will live where, economic vitality, and perhaps the city's racial composition.
New Orleans pre-Katrina was a majority-black city. Today, it is a majority-white one, and it's unclear how many of the hundreds of thousands of still-displaced residents will return.
In the primary election a month ago, Nagin took home 38 percent of the vote - and 70 percent came from blacks. The 29 percent support for Mr. Landrieu came from a broader cross-section of people.
While both camps say they don't put any stock in polling data since so many residents are displaced and hard to reach, a Tulane University poll released Wednesday showed Landrieu's support at 48 percent of respondents while Nagin had the support of 38 percent. Another 14 percent said they were still undecided.
Because that 14 percent is greater than the margin between the two, says Brian Brox, one of the political scientists conducting the poll, "the focus for both candidates has to be on turnout."
Last month's primary showed the hardship of reaching new black voters when the overall percentage of blacks who voted was lower than a normal election, while whites voted at the same rate as previous elections. This was partly because the majority of those displaced by hurricane Katrina were blacks, and they had difficulty casting ballots in other places.
"Nagin's main challenge in the runoff is to expand the electorate of new black voters," says Dr. Howell. Nagin has been doing that, in part, by making this an African-American cause, Howell says. "He's been saying, 'This is about more than just me. This is about making sure we don't turn back the clock.'
"The clock" is the 30 years that have passed since the city had a white mayor. In reality, she says, there is not much difference between the two candidates on substance. Both are Democrats - though Landrieu is more liberal than Nagin - and both have similar rebuilding and economic-development plans.
"A lot of the value in having a mayor who's African-American is symbolic," Howell says.
Nagin is aware that race is playing a role in this election, but says he's working to reach out to everybody.
Four years ago, more whites voted for him than any other black mayoral candidate in the city's history, and his support came primarily from whites.
In the April primary, many of his previous supporters did not vote for him, which Nagin calls "a protest vote. But I think many have cooled off since then and realize that this town needs a business-oriented guy, not a politician."
Both candidates have also been trying to shore up their weaknesses. For Landrieu, that means reaching out to conservative white voters. With his large war chest, he has been working to draw votes from those who supported white businessmen Ron Forman and Robert Couhig in the primary. Mr. Forman, who came in third, endorsed Landrieu, and Mr. Couhig, who came in fourth, endorsed Nagin.
Still, white voters overwhelmingly supported white candidates in the primary, and Professor Brox sees no change in the runoff. His poll shows almost 70 percent of poll respondents supporting Landrieu. "I think there's a large portion of white conservative voters who will be holding their noses and voting for Landrieu," he says.
In the meantime, residents inside the city are getting telephone calls from both candidates.
Ronquel Coleman has been working the phones at the Landrieu headquarters for three weeks. One of several African-American volunteers here, she says she's not swayed by Nagin's newfound love for her community. "Prior to Katrina, I felt he never was for the black community. But since Katrina, he has put on a big old front for us," she says. "He insulted me when he took it back to race. We've had enough of that. It's time to move forward."
Back at the Armed Services luncheon, George Mitchell supports Nagin. "All of a sudden everybody's got a quick answer," he says. "If I didn't hear your voice on that freeway where we were stranded for three days after the storm, how could you have a fix for me now?"