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Louisiana Governor Trails in Polls for Primary Today : Edwards Faces Tough Reelection Fight

October 24, 1987|J. MICHAEL KENNEDY | Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — Here in Louisiana, where outrageous politics is as much a staple as red beans and rice, one of the most outrageous politicians of them all is in trouble.

The state's raucous governor, Edwin W. Edwards, is fighting for his political life as he attempts to win an unprecedented fourth term.

But, if the polls are to be believed, the dapper Edwards wouldn't be able to beat any of the other four candidates in head-to-head competition. By Edwards' reckoning, a crippled Louisiana economy is more to blame than his reckless life if he is defeated in an election for the first time in his life.

Known as 'Buddy'

And, as things stand now, the challenger most likely to bring down Edwards is a man who prefers to be known as "Buddy."

The first round of this battle will take place today, when Louisiana voters go to the polls for the state's unusual open primary. The names of all five gubernatorial candidates--four Democrats and one Republican--will be on the same ballot. Voters will choose two from that group, regardless of party affiliation, to be in a monthlong runoff.

Edwards, for all of his problems, is expected to be one of them. The front-runner, according to three polls taken in the last week, is Democrat Buddy Roemer, a Harvard-educated four-term congressman from upstate Bossier City.

In one of those oddities indigenous to Louisiana politics, Roemer's father, Charles, was Edwards' campaign manager in 1971, was one of the governor's chief political operatives during the '70s--and was a convict. The elder Roemer served time in prison after being convicted in 1980 on corruption charges. The younger Roemer is running for office on a platform of cleaning up state government.

Roemer, though, has the endorsement of eight major newspapers in the state, essentially a clean sweep. That, in turn, has prompted Edwards and other candidates to accuse Louisiana's publishers of conspiring on behalf of Roemer.

Endorsements Assailed

"Of course it was a conspiracy," Edwards said. "Never in the history of the state have all the newspapers endorsed the same candidate."

Charles Ferguson, the editor of the New Orleans Times-Picayune--the state's largest newspaper--denied any collusion and called the accusation "bunk."

But political analyst Ed Renwick said the Times-Picayune endorsement, followed quickly by the others, was Roemer's salvation. Before that, he had been running in the back of the pack.

"It's not what he did, it's what the Times-Picayune did," Renwick said.

Much has changed for Edwards since his landslide victory in 1983, when he was fond of saying that the only way he could be defeated would be if he were caught in bed with "either a dead girl or a live boy."

Goes Through Two Trials

Since then, Edwards has undergone two highly publicized trials in which he was accused of conspiracy and racketeering. One trial ended in a hung jury and the governor was acquitted in the second, but the prosecution made Edwards' high living and high-stakes gambling a central theme.

The state's oil-driven economy also was riding higher during that last campaign. Now, the state's economy is in tatters. Unemployment was as high as 14% and at one point earlier this year the state was having trouble just paying its bills. The major planks of Edwards' platform are proposals for a state lottery and the world's largest casino as a way of relieving some of the state's financial misery.

"If we had a good economy, I wouldn't have any political problems," Edwards said.

Edwards, an intensely proud man, announced he was running for a fourth term immediately after he was found not guilty in the second trial. Now he contends those weeks in court did not hurt him at all.

"It's not even mentioned any more," he said.

'Live Flesh and Blood'

He also said Roemer can be defeated, once the field is narrowed to two and there is a "head-on confrontation with real, live flesh and blood."

Certainly, Edwards has lost no time in trying to discredit Roemer, now that the polls put him in first place. He has characterized Roemer as very much a part of the old-boy political system of the state. He also said Roemer sought his help in obtaining two bank charters and that their friendship waned when Edwards could not assist in obtaining a third.

Roemer dismissed Edwards' remarks as a desperate effort to discredit him.

He said his relationship with Edwards was "very little, very legal and very long ago."

Pollster Robert Miller, who has tracked the entire campaign, said it would be premature to assume that Edwards is about to exit the stage to become a part of Louisiana's colorful political history.

Makes Opponents Look Bad

"He has the amazing ability to make his opponents look bad," he said. "I'm not willing to say it's impossible for Edwin Edwards to be reelected. The obvious strategy for Edwards is to say that Buddy Roemer is just as much a part of the system as he is.

"If Roemer wins, that's going to be seen as the biggest political event in the last 10 years," he said.

One of Edwards' major critics, Ed Steimel of the Louisiana Assn. of Business and Industry, believes Edwards is finished.

"I believe that finally his cute way of handling issues and his own strange way of living have finally caught up with him," he said. "I hope I am talking from my head and not my heart."

Meanwhile, Edwards kept stumping. One of his stops was a gathering of local business leaders, where he announced that unemployment in the state had just dipped below 10% for the first time in six years. Edwards took credit for that.

"If I'm responsible for the unemployment, then I'm also responsible for the employment," he said.

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