Louisiana: Can the GOP Get One More Seat?

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Bush campaigns with Republican candidate for Senate Suzanne Terrell

The last undecided U.S. Senate race may not mean much in terms of that chamber's balance of power — with 51 seats already in the bag, Republicans are guaranteed at least a majority. But the runoff contest between Louisiana's incumbent Democrat, Mary Landrieu, and her Republican challenger, Suzanne Haik Terrell, does hold a powerful symbolic appeal. A number of GOP VIPs, including President Bush, have campaigned in the state recently to help solidify the party's strong national showing in November; Democrats, mindful that they already need two Jim Jeffords-like defections to retake the Senate, would prefer not to make it three . A quick rundown before Saturday's vote:

The landscape

Coming as it does on the heels of an historic Republican victory, the race between Landrieu and Terrell has attracted more than its share of attention over the past three weeks. Recent stumping has served to galvanize members of a disconsolate Democratic Party as well as tantalize Republicans with the thought of one more win. For the GOP, ousting Landrieu would be a particularly sweet finale to this very good election season; Louisianans have not sent a Republican to the U.S. Senate in more than 100 years.

President Bush has taken his very successful campaign pitch and fund-raising machine to the state in recent weeks, joined at rallies by his father, former President Bush, as well as Vice President Dick Cheney. Republicans believe a win this Saturday in this extremely Democratic state could bode well for a Bush 2004 reelection bid — Louisiana has voted eight consecutive times for the winning presidential candidate.

The candidates

Landrieu, who narrowly won election to a first term six years ago, ranks among the Senate's more conservative Democrats, which is considered a plus in this year's election. Her voting record has essentially disabled many Republican criticisms; she has sided with the Bush Administration on issues ranging from oil drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife reserve to the use of force against Iraq. One key departure from the right has sparked the fiercest attacks from Republicans; Landrieu is pro-choice, a stand that has made her a target among the traditionally Democratic Louisiana electorate — which is comprised of a large number of Catholics and a rapidly increasing body of evangelical Christians. On the plus side: Landrieu's family is entrenched in the state's political system; her father was mayor of New Orleans and she served in the state legislature for years.

Terrell, the state election commissioner, adheres completely to the Republican agenda. She is pro-life, pro-tax cut — in other words, pro-Bush, a fact that the President has trumpeted during this campaign. "[Terrell] is the kind of person I can work with," he announced during a speech Tuesday in Shreveport. Terrell's primary message: Louisiana's interests will be better served if its representative in the Senate is a member of the Republican majority.

The odds

The fact that this runoff is taking place at all is a sign that Landrieu may be in trouble. After all, if she had managed to bring in more than 50 percent of the votes in the November election, she'd be settling in for a second term in D.C. rather than wrangling with Terrell in increasingly heated debates. Nevertheless, despite the incumbent's lackluster performance last month, oddsmakers still give her a slight edge. Landrieu is from a respected political family; she has the advantage of incumbency and name recognition; her record is established. Most important of all in this fiercely Democratic state: She's a Democrat. And that alone may just be enough to send her back to Washington.