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New Orleans Mayor Seen as Runoff Underdog

Analysts say Landrieu is more likely to win the supporters of Saturday's losing candidates.

April 24, 2006|Ann M. Simmons | Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — C. Ray Nagin will have to maintain the support of black voters, regain the trust of whites and come up with specific ideas for rebuilding New Orleans if he wants to stay in the mayor's office, analysts here said Sunday.

Nagin, who won 38% of the 108,000 ballots cast in Saturday's mayoral election, nevertheless is not considered the favorite in his May 20 runoff with Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, who garnered 29% of the vote.

"Mayor Nagin is going to have to change the dynamics of his campaign a bit," said Wayne Parent, a political science professor at Louisiana State University. "Even though he won really strongly, he's the underdog in the race."

Analysts think Landrieu is more likely to land supporters of runners-up Ron Forman, who won 17% of the ballot, and Rob Couhig, who received 10%.

"Landrieu becomes the odds-on favorite to win, partly because of his ability to appeal to some African American voters and to the generally white supporters of his opponents -- if they vote," said Brian Brox, a political scientist at Tulane University.

Thirty-six percent of the city's 298,000 registered voters cast ballots in Saturday's election, which fielded about two dozen candidates. In many neighborhoods, voting took place against a backdrop of abandoned cars, gutted homes and garbage-strewn streets.

Jennifer Marusak, a spokeswoman for the Louisiana Department of State, said a racial breakdown of the vote would not be available for several days. But analysis of numbers from individual precincts by some observers showed that Nagin's support came primarily from blacks, whereas Landrieu made a strong showing across racial lines.

(Residents are asked but not required to state their race when registering to vote. Voter registration rolls and the location of the precinct where a vote is cast are public record. This information is used to determine the racial voting patterns.)

Nagin and Landrieu reignited their campaigns Sunday with promises to unite the city, and both said they had already called Forman, Couhig and other candidates to weigh their ideas.

Nagin told reporters after polls closed Saturday that he would continue pushing his message on the street and with community groups.

"I think I have a good strategy so far," Nagin said. "I think we have momentum on our side."

A corporate executive turned politician, Nagin was elected with strong support from whites in 2002. He reciprocated by appointing some of them to prominent positions in his Cabinet, causing many blacks to accuse him of selling out.

Hurricane Katrina thrust Nagin into the international spotlight when he publicly scolded state and federal officials for responding slowly to residents stranded in the flooding. His strong words won praise from black residents.

However, he alienated many white voters with his remark this year that New Orleans would one day again be a "chocolate" city. The business elite and affluent residents who backed him financially four years ago put their support elsewhere this time around.

"Nagin has a much tougher sell, getting the white votes that initially got him into office but have largely deserted him now," said Jim Brandt, president of the Public Affairs Research Council, an independent think tank in Baton Rouge, La. "[His] fundraising has taken a dive."

In an election day interview, Nagin dismissed assertions that he was no longer attractive to whites.

"I can get along with everyone," he said during a campaign stop to have lunch with a predominantly black crowd. "I was the only one who had crossover appeal last time."

But Landrieu, a well-financed veteran politician whose family has a strong civil rights record, is claiming that appeal this time.

At a news conference Sunday, he said he intended to continue an aggressive campaign that would reach out to the city's four main ethnicities: African American, white, Latino and Vietnamese. "I believe that we can unite this city with a message that does not polarize," Landrieu said.

His campaign manager, Dana Peterson, said the lieutenant governor was well-positioned to pick up votes from Forman and Couhig, who are known to have strong support among affluent whites in the city's Uptown and Lakeview neighborhoods.

"They have a history of voting for him, so it won't be hard for him to reach them," Peterson said.

But analysts said there was no guarantee that Forman and Couhig supporters would line up behind Landrieu, or that they would vote at all.

"This was a tough campaign," said Brandt, noting the acrimony that arose from some of the candidates' negative advertising. "It's going to take time to get over some of the feelings."

In the meantime, Nagin will have to offer more than charisma if he wants win, other analysts said. "He will have to bring into the race some specific ideas that haven't been talked about before," Parent said. "The onus is on Nagin."

*

Times staff writer Richard Fausset contributed to his report.

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