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Last Battle in Bruising Political Season

Louisiana runoff for Senate seat is significant because the GOP's new majority is so slim.

November 18, 2002|Nick Anderson | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — While the battle for control of the Senate ended Nov. 5 in Republican triumph, a runoff election in Louisiana next month will punctuate the tumultuous political year.

Victory for the Democratic incumbent would raise a question mark for the slim new GOP majority; victory for the Republican challenger would give it an exclamation point.

At stake in the Dec. 7 contest between Sen. Mary Landrieu, the Democrat, and Republican Suzanne Haik Terrell is whether the GOP will gain a crucial additional seat or whether Democrats will solidify their minority with an important consolation win in the South.

So far, Republicans are assured of 51 Senate seats when the new Congress convenes in January and the Democrats of 47, plus the support of a 48th who is independent.

With the margin so close, and with Senate control seesawing in recent years through deaths and political defection, the Louisiana race for the 100th seat is all the more significant.

Both parties are pouring money into the state in a final binge of campaign spending for 2002, unchecked in this instance by the new ban on unregulated "soft money" that affects all other national party activities. The campaign finance law, which took effect Nov. 6, exempts runoff elections.

But despite the intense partisan warfare, Landrieu and Terrell are fighting over relatively narrow political terrain.

In a nationally televised debate Sunday, the two clashed over who would provide a stronger voice for Louisiana in Washington -- a Democratic moderate who frequently aligns with President Bush on taxes, defense, social policy and foreign affairs or a Republican who fully embraces the president's agenda.

Questioned by Tim Russert on NBC's "Meet the Press," Landrieu refused to rule out, or rule in, a vote next year to support making Bush's tax cut permanent, one of the most vital economic and fiscal issues facing the next Congress.

Currently, the $1.35-trillion tax cut, which Landrieu supported in 2001, is due to expire at the end of the decade.

"I will vote to extend the tax cut if we can afford to do it," Landrieu said. But she added: "I don't know what we can afford right now based on the fact that we don't know what this war on terrorism is going to cost."

Terrell said she would vote to remove the expiration date of Dec. 31, 2010, but she declined to say how much further tax cuts would cost. She praised, however, a Bush proposal to privatize a portion of the federal work force and save billions of dollars.

"Those are the kinds of things we're going to have to look at," Terrell said.

The two candidates head into the runoff after Louisiana voters sent conflicting signals in the Nov. 5 election. Under the state's unusual laws, which allow the major parties to field multiple candidates in a so-called jungle primary, the top two vote-getters in a crowded field were forced into a second contest after none captured a majority.

Landrieu, who won 46% of the votes in a nine-candidate field, was able to stake a solid claim as the front-runner. But Terrell, who got 27% and led two other GOP candidates, was able to make a credible counterclaim: A majority of voters chose one of the Republicans over the first-term incumbent.

Landrieu, 47, is experienced in hard-fought campaigns. She beat a Republican for an open seat in 1996 by only about 6,000 votes. Her opponent appealed the result to the Senate, alleging election fraud, but the claim was dismissed.

Terrell, 48, is the state election commissioner. She was backed this year by national Republicans as their best chance to unseat the vulnerable incumbent. But GOP Gov. Mike Foster has so far declined to endorse Terrell and has criticized her sharp-edged campaign attacks.

Asked in the debate whether she would forgo further negative television advertisements, Terrell said: "Mary has a negative record for Louisiana. And that's what this is about."

She contended that a vote for Landrieu would be a vote for Democratic obstruction. "You don't have to be a roadblock with [Democratic Sens.] Tom Daschle and Hillary [Rodham] Clinton to do right by Louisiana," she said.

Landrieu said she has given the state influence through service on the Armed Services, Appropriations and Energy committees. She said she had worked with Bush, toward the political center, without being co-opted by Republicans.

"I'm not going to be a rubber stamp for any national party," she said. "The president doesn't need ... another senator. Louisiana needs another senator."

The debate underscored friction points on cultural and economic issues. On trade, for instance, Terrell was forced to explain how she would handle a possible decision by the Bush administration to allow greater imports of Mexican sugar into the United States -- potentially damaging a key Louisiana industry.

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