Mary Landrieu Dodges a Bullet

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Would he run? That was the question on the minds of many Louisianans' last week — including their Democratic Senator, Mary Landrieu. The "he" in question is Louisiana's governor, Mike Foster, a big, gregarious Republican who had until 5pm last Friday to decide if he wanted to challenge Landrieu for her seat. Ultimately, Foster decided he'd rather stay in Baton Rouge than go to Washington. And while Landrieu must be breathing a bit easier, she's not out of the woods yet.

Landrieu is no shrinking violet, although her opponents have long tried to dismiss her drive. This is a woman with serious political genes: the oldest child (of nine) of Moon Landrieu, a former mayor of New Orleans, Mary won a seat in the state legislature at 23, the youngest representative in the state's history. Some of her fellow reps reminded her of that by constantly calling her "Little Mary." She proved them rather juvenile when she went on to win a job as state treasurer and then U.S. Senator. In that race, she held her own against Republican Woody Jenkins, who, like her past opponents, underestimated her. When asked in a debate if he had anything positive he could say about her, Jenkins replied, "She's nice looking." Landrieu probably feels she looks even nicer in the U.S. Capitol.

Republicans think they can get her out of there. She's considered one of the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents this year, and her political bent doesn't help; she's halfway between moderate and liberal in a moderate to conservative state. But Republicans have not found a top-caliber candidate to take on Landrieu. When word leaked out last week that President Bush was asking Foster to run, GOP hopes spiked, even though Foster's always said he had no higher ambition than being governor. And at 72, he has little interest in spending time away from his home state, where he loves to go duck hunting and ride his motorcycle.

Foster surprised everyone once before when he came out of the back of the pack to win the governor's mansion. He was just a state senator from St. Mary parish in 1995 when he defeated four better-known candidates in a free-for-all election. He'd been in politics for just six years, having spent most of his life making millions in sugar, oil and construction. The governor has built a reputation as a centrist who works with both parties, and he's gotten a lot done in the past six years. That's why he would have been a big threat to Landrieu.

Now the incumbent Senator doesn't have to worry about Foster, but she still faces a tough fight. There are five other candidates gunning for her seat, which she won by a margin of only 5,788 voters in 1996. Without an all-star candidate like Foster to run, the GOP has resorted to wildly sending in every candidate they can find and — hoping someone scores big. Three different Republican candidates are in the race, plus a minor Democrat and an independent. Normally having three candidates in a race would be horrible for a party. They would fight like dogs in the primary, and whoever won the nomination would be badly bruised and short on campaign money. In the meantime, Landrieu could sit back and watch the fireworks.

Normally, having multiple members in the race only hurts the party. But Louisiana, except in Presidential election years, has no party primaries. On Election Day, every candidate for an office is on the ballot. If no candidate takes at least 50% of the vote, the top two vote getters, regardless of party, duke it out in a runoff one month later. That means the Republican contenders don't have to fight each other; they can focus all their attention on Landrieu. And a recent poll by the National Republican Senatorial Committee found that of the three Republican candidates facing off against Landrieu, none of them could beat her head on, but together they could hold her to 46 percent. That means she would have to face the top GOP vote getter in the runoff. Landrieu's campaign conducted its own poll and found she got 53% of the vote in a four-way race. But if you compare the two partisan polls and figure the truth is somewhere in the middle, Landrieu is at 49-50%, hardly the most comfortable spot to find yourself in.

Still, the GOP's strategy may force Landrieu into a runoff, but it won't be enough to defeat her. Neither of the two leading GOP contenders, Congressman John Cooksey or State Elections Commissioner Suzanne Haik Terrell, can muster good head-to-head numbers against Landrieu. Terrell has been showing flickers of promise recently, but if neither Republican catches fire, Landrieu's job will be safe. Especially now that the GOP's best hope is staying in the governor's mansion.