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Landrieu Swims Against a GOP Tide

November 29, 2002|Nick Anderson | Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — Standing beneath a magnolia tree bathed in sunshine, Sen. Mary L. Landrieu recalled a watery day years ago when her grandmother paddled up to the family home in a canoe.

The flood of 1978 swamped the house where Landrieu grew up and turned General Pershing Street into a canal. Landrieu pointed to the third step of the front porch's stairway and said: "That's how high the water was -- up to here."

Now another flood laps at Landrieu's feet. It is a GOP tide, swelled by the popularity of President Bush, that threatens to topple the first-term Democrat in a runoff election Dec. 7 and give Louisiana its first Republican senator since Reconstruction ended in 1877.

Republicans wrested the Senate from Democratic control Nov. 5, but only by a slim margin. In the year's final Senate race, for the 100th seat, Landrieu faces Republican Suzanne Haik Terrell to determine whether the GOP majority will hold at 51 seats or grow to 52.

Adding a seat would give Republicans a cushion to guard against a sudden Democratic takeover, such as occurred last year when Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont quit the GOP and became an independent. A Republican win also would add to the political momentum the party gained from the midterm results.

Landrieu, though, is no pushover. She was easily the top vote-getter in the nine-person Senate race Nov. 5, though she was forced into the runoff by falling short of the 50% mark.

The daughter of a former New Orleans mayor and Carter administration Cabinet secretary, she began her own political career in her mid-20s. She served in the state Legislature and as state treasurer. In 1996, she won a close Senate race that was subsequently challenged by an opponent, who alleged massive vote fraud in New Orleans. The Senate dismissed the charge.

In Washington, she has compiled a centrist voting record tailored to the state's political leanings. She also has pushed federal money toward Louisiana as a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee -- including flood-control aid that she touted during a news conference at her old home.

But Bush, who helped engineer the Senate takeover by campaigning for Republicans successfully in Georgia, Missouri, Minnesota and elsewhere, hopes to replicate the feat here. The president is scheduled to swing through the state Tuesday.

If Terrell wins, it would be an emphatic finale to an already-rousing year for the GOP. It would also mark another stage in the Republican consolidation of power in what Democrats once called their "solid South."

What makes the runoff especially volatile is that no one knows how many people will come to the polls on a Saturday in December. In previous years, Louisiana runoffs coincided with the usual November election day elsewhere.

Under the new calendar, political experts are pondering these wild cards: Will football fans be distracted if Louisiana State University lands in a conference title game that day in Atlanta? Will the gun enthusiasts who like to hunt not vote because hunting season opens Dec. 7? Most important, will black voters in New Orleans rally as strongly for Landrieu this year as they did in 1996, a presidential election when Bill Clinton headed the Democratic ticket?

"We're in uncharted waters," said Wayne Parent, a Louisiana State political scientist. "We don't know whether one high-profile race will turn people out."

On Nov. 5, Landrieu won 46% of the vote in the nine-candidate field. Three Republicans combined for 51% of the vote. Terrell led that trio with 27%.

In the Landrieu view, the results showed her not far from victory. In the Terrell view, she will win if she can consolidate the Republican vote.

Polling has failed to dispel the murk. Public surveys have shown the incumbent with an edge, but their reliability is unclear.

The two foes bear some similarities. Both are Catholics from New Orleans. Terrell, 48, the state elections commissioner, pledges fealty to Bush on most issues.

Landrieu, 47, has backed the president on war (voting for the Iraq use-of-force resolution), on taxes (voting for his $1.35-trillion tax cut) and on energy (voting to drill for oil in part of the Alaska wildlife refuge).

Terrell has assumed an unusual role for a challenger, emerging as the Washington insider and touting her close ties to Republicans in power.

Vice President Dick Cheney and incoming Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi have stumped for her in advance of Bush. Before the primary, she won critical backing from the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Landrieu is running as the outsider. She depicts herself as an independent and has shunned joint appearances with national Democratic figures in an effort to avoid being labeled a liberal. The only prominent Democrat at her side is the state's senior senator, John B. Breaux, who, like Landrieu, often votes with Bush.

Breaux acknowledged the political potency of Air Force One. Bush "showed that all over the country" on Nov. 5, Breaux said. "But he's not invincible."

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