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The Nation | DISPATCH FROM DONALDSONVILLE, LA.

GOP Beats the Drum, but Voters March to Their Own Tune

December 12, 2004|Scott Gold | Times Staff Writer

DONALDSONVILLE, La. — Louisiana's final 2004 congressional seats went to one Republican and one Democrat, the latest example of what has been a spotty record when the Bush White House and the national GOP have tried their hand at politics in this state.

President Bush has won twice in historically Democratic Louisiana, which analysts believe is leaning toward the Republican Party. This year, Rep. David Vitter defeated three Democrats to be elected the state's first Republican senator in a century.

But last weekend's runoff served as a reminder that the voters of this state would not be dictated to by Washington.

Take the case of Billy Tauzin III, a 31-year-old Republican lobbyist who was vying to replace his father -- the popular and powerful Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin, who is retiring after 24 years in Congress.

The national GOP took great interest in the race. Money poured in from Washington. The younger Tauzin, photographers in tow, met with Bush in the White House. On Dec. 1, Vice President Dick Cheney flew to Louisiana, talked up Bush's recent "mandate" and urged voters to elect the younger Tauzin.

To many, the message was clear: If Louisianans here in the 3rd District went for Tauzin, he would be welcomed as a friend, he would be part of a movement.

But all those efforts couldn't push Tauzin over the top. Democrat Charlie Melancon of Napoleonville won by 569 votes, even though he had trailed in polls for the better part of a year. Tauzin conceded last week.

That was not the first time the national GOP had failed to sway an election here.

In 2002, the party sent in a parade of heavy-hitters, including Bush, to campaign for U.S. Senate candidate Suzanne Haik Terrell, only to watch her lose to Democrat Mary Landrieu. In the 2003 gubernatorial race, party leaders pointed to 32-year-old Bobby Jindal as a conservative wunderkind and a future star of the GOP. Jindal lost to Kathleen Babineaux Blanco.

Casey O'Shea, Melancon's campaign manager, said the Cheney visit had played into the Democratic hopeful's hands. His race against Tauzin had degenerated into a spectacle of mudslinging, but behind the charges and countercharges, the Democrats tried to portray the contest as one of "experience versus inexperience," O'Shea said.

Melancon, 57, served in the state House before becoming chief of the powerful American Sugar Cane League. Tauzin "didn't have anything else to offer, other than the fact that he was his dad's son," said Gordon E. Harvey, a professor at the University of Louisiana at Monroe who specializes in Southern politics and history.

"We were already making the case that Tauzin had to be propped up," O'Shea said. "Now the vice president is showing up trying to prop this kid up?"

Republican Party officials said Cheney's visit did nothing but help Tauzin.

"I don't think it backfired at all," said Matt Gresham, Tauzin's spokesman. "It was a good boost to the campaign."

National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Bo Harmon agreed, pointing out that Cheney also campaigned for Republican Charles Boustany Jr. in Louisiana's 7th District -- and Boustany beat Democrat Willie Mount handily.

But Harvey, the history professor, said the Tauzin campaign relied too heavily on help from Washington insiders who didn't understand Louisiana -- which could be divided into two political states.

The north is a largely Protestant bastion of social conservatism that provides consistent support for Republicans. The landscape in the south is more complex, with pockets of independent Catholics and Cajuns as well as large, left-leaning African American communities -- particularly in New Orleans.

With rare exception, a Democrat cannot get elected here unless he or she is a moderate or a conservative. Blanco, for instance, flummoxed Jindal during the gubernatorial race when she pulled out her National Rifle Assn. membership card during a debate.

Still, GOP insiders sent here to campaign often try to paint Democrats as old-school liberals. Advertisements paid for by an arm of the Republican Party, for instance, likened Melancon to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.).

Harvey said the charge didn't hold water: Like many Democrats here, Melancon is a steadfast supporter of gun rights and an opponent of gay marriage. If anything, the GOP tactic revealed how little Tauzin's campaign staff knew about Louisiana, undercutting his candidacy, Harvey said.

"Our population is less than 4 million. It's not like we don't know these people already," Harvey said. "It's not enough, even in the South, to say: 'I'm a Republican. Vote for me. Period.' You can't just bring in the all-stars and think that people will run to the ballot boxes like automatons."

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