Louisiana's I-Love-George Contest

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For Democrats, the recent trouncing at the polls has triggered a lot of soul-searching. Has the party been too centrist, too wimpy, too afraid to challenge President Bush? Some presidential hopefuls are now vying to move as far from Bush as possible: Al Gore uses words like horrible and immoral to characterize his policies.

But talking tough is not an option in Louisiana, where there's a close battle going on, a runoff (required when no one tops 50%) on Dec. 7 between the top two finishers: incumbent Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu and state election commissioner Suzanne Terrell. The Republicans' strategy: show how close Terrell is to Bush. The Democrats' approach: pretty much the same. That's right, despite the new tough talk from the party's presidential wannabes, the Democrats' best strategy right now is to narrow the gap with Bush, maybe pretend there's no daylight at all.

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And so Landrieu, running for a second term, trumpets the fact that she has voted with the President a generous 74% of the time! But by that criterion, she could be in trouble: Terrell says she will vote for Bush 100% of the time.

With the Senate already comfortably Republican, you might think this rump race would be no big deal. You would be wrong. Although Bush warned Republicans not to gloat over taking the Senate, he didn't say anything about not rubbing it in with one more win. Senator Mitch McConnell, the G.O.P. campaign chairman, refers to the contest as "war." He's pouring as much as $10 million into the state to help Terrell, who had been a relative unknown until Election Day, when she finished ahead of the early favorite, Representative John Cooksey. He was abandoned by the national party after describing a Muslim as wearing "a diaper on his head."

Terrell, a longtime friend of Dubya's who co-ran his presidential campaign in Louisiana, is for shrinking government (she voted to eliminate her own job) and favors making Bush's tax cut permanent and then some: she would roll back the tax on wealthy Social Security recipients. She admires neither Washington values nor Washingtonspeak. When Terrell didn't know the answer to one of Tim Russert's questions during a head-to-head debate on Meet the Press, she admitted she didn't know, explaining afterward that she didn't want to be "overprepared and seem robotic." In a state with a strong preference for characters, Terrell sticks to her talking points and doesn't worry about charisma. Terrell supporter and Republican Congressman Billy Tauzin, himself a character, says, "Every now and then, even in a state that likes rascals, Louisiana elects someone serious."

Terrell might be up the bayou if Landrieu was a good ole girl lighting up the campaign trail. In a state that went for Clinton (the good-ole-boy thing) but soundly rejected Gore in 2000, Landrieu is more homecoming queen turned soccer mom than Big Easy backslapper. One of nine children of former New Orleans Mayor Moon Landrieu, she lives in her childhood home when in the state and walks a tightrope that might be described as compassionate conservative Democrat. She is great at delivering the pork (most mayors are grateful supporters), and she looks after the working class (she introduced a bill to reduce payroll taxes). She worked with Bush on the No Child Left Behind Act and voted for his homeland-security bill. The state's senior Senator, John Breaux, explains, "She didn't want to be Cleland-ed," a reference to Georgia Senator Max Cleland, the Vietnam War hero defeated after his opponent pictured him with Osama bin Laden for having voted against the same bill.

The tight race will break to the one who does the best job of caulking the cracks in her base. Before the election, Republican Governor Mike Foster (who was supporting Cooksey) railed at Terrell for engaging in "class warfare" because of a negative ad she ran around the clock for weeks that claimed Landrieu had lost touch with Louisiana values because she lives in a million-dollar mansion in Washington. Landrieu's row house next to a dry cleaner on a major thoroughfare might be worth a million — Washington real estate is absurd — but it's surely not worth more than Terrell's residence in a gated community in the Garden District of New Orleans.

Terrell has had to mend fences with the state's antiabortion constituency, which has doubted her credentials since a 1994 Planned Parenthood brochure surfaced listing her as co-chairwoman of its 10th-anniversary gathering. In this campaign, she's made it clear that she's for overturning Roe v. Wade, even if it would make criminals of doctors who perform abortions and women who get them.

Landrieu, for her part, lost the support of some hard-core women's groups for advocating a ban on partial-birth abortions. She can live without them in a Catholic state, but she needs to repair relations with several African-American leaders who are threatening to stay home to teach a lesson to Democrats, who spend more time courting Bush than courting blacks. Governor Foster came around last week, joining Terrell onstage with Dick Cheney. And there's another politician ready to help. President Bush will swing through Louisiana on his way back to Washington after Thanksgiving to give a boost to the candidate he can count on 100% of the time.