HOUSTON — There are moments, amid the din of Louisiana's halls of power, when it seems like Charles "Buddy" Roemer III is the only person who has not declared his candidacy for the U.S. Senate. Still, he's getting the lion's share of the buzz.
In an interview this week, the Democrat - turned - Republican -- who served as Louisiana governor from 1988 to 1992 -- gave the strongest indication yet that he would like to jump back into politics. Though most analysts have said his chances of victory would be slim, the effect of his candidacy could be enormous.
Roemer, 60, said he would announce within three weeks whether he will join the field of candidates vying for the seat being vacated by Sen. John B. Breaux, a moderate Democrat who is arguably the state's most popular politician.
"He's been like Hamlet," Gordon E. Harvey, a professor at the University of Louisiana at Monroe who specializes in Southern history and politics, said of Roemer. "If I had to play my money, I would think that he would not run. But he sure likes to have people call and ask him about it."
Roemer, now a Baton Rouge banker, certainly sounds like a candidate.
"Selfishly, [life] couldn't be going better," he said in the interview. "But I'm interested. I think America needs some pulling together -- a Republican who will vote with Democrats when it is right. The most John Breaux-like person who could run in this election is Buddy Roemer."
Twelve years after Roemer ended a divisive and colorful career in public office -- his tenure as governor was labeled the "Roemer revolution" because of his campaign to root out official corruption -- state politicians once again are hanging on his every word.
And not necessarily because they support his candidacy.
In a conservative state that typically backs GOP presidential candidates, Louisiana voters have elected only Democrats to the Senate since Reconstruction. In the last two years, the state has been the site of two increasingly rare victories for Democrats in the South -- Sen. Mary Landrieu's reelection in 2002 and the election last year of Kathleen Babineaux Blanco as governor.
But the Republican establishment in Louisiana thought it had cleared the Senate race field for Rep. David Vitter, a conservative backed by the White House.
Vitter is leading in the polls, ahead of Rep. Christopher John, state Treasurer John Kennedy and state Rep. Arthur Morrell, all Democrats. And analysts say a ballot vote on same-sex marriage -- scheduled to appear on the Nov. 2 ballot with the presidential and Senate contests -- could draw conservatives to the polls. That leads GOP officials to think that Vitter, whose office did not return calls for comment, has a good shot at winning the seat.
"It's always going to be rough for a Republican in Louisiana to win statewide," said state Republican Party executive director Jon Bargas. "But I think Vitter has a much better chance than other recent candidates. The party faithful are firmly behind Congressman Vitter."
Roemer, however, has made it clear that he is fully prepared to buck the GOP establishment -- including Bush, whom he supports in the presidential race.
"It is my belief that America does better together ... not split, fractured, splintered," he said. "I liked it when George Bush ran for office and talked about bringing everyone together. I haven't liked the result. We have an executive who seems to be a good man but who could stand some good counsel."
Roemer called Vitter a "man of good quality" and knows that GOP leaders in Washington and Louisiana do not want him to run.
"They've never been for me," he said. "I do not appeal to party leadership. My strength is small farms, small businesses and average people."
That coalition failed Roemer in his last race, and his revolution ended with a whimper. In 1991, running for reelection, he came in third -- behind David Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan wizard, and Edwin Edwards, who went on to win but was later imprisoned on corruption charges.
Roemer's populist positions, however, are largely why leaders of both parties said he could have an effect if he decides to join the race. Louisiana has an unusual electoral system. All candidates, regardless of party affiliation, run on one ballot. If no one gets more than 50% of the vote, which is likely in this race, the top two vote-getters meet in a runoff.
According to one theory, the moderate Roemer could siphon enough votes away from Vitter to enable a Democrat to win the race outright. A more likely scenario, however, is that Roemer's moderate stances would force Vitter to turn hard to the political right this fall to shore up his conservative base. That could make it harder for him to win a one-on-one matchup with a Democrat in a runoff, analysts said.
Republicans currently hold 51 of the Senate's 100 seats. But Democrats claim to be making headway in their quest to win back seats in several states. Senate control, therefore, could be determined by Louisiana, which will not decide its general election until December.
"This will be the last Senate race to be resolved," Bargas said. "If it means the balance of the Senate, it will be really exciting."