Suddenly, race isn't about past but future
Candidates must run on their own merits
Wednesday, March 21, 2007
By Bill BarrowCapital bureau
BATON ROUGE -- With her decision not to seek a second term, Democratic Gov. Kathleen Blanco took a campaign nearly certain to be about her post-hurricane performance and turned it into a traditional Louisiana free-for-all.
The biggest potential winner, political observers said, is Democrat John Breaux, the former U.S senator who lives in Maryland and hasn't declared his candidacy, but whose name has still laced Capitol chatter in recent weeks. The one with the most to lose, they said, is Republican front-runner Bobby Jindal, who enjoyed an eye-popping polling lead in a rematch of his 2003 race with Blanco.
"The race previously was entirely, almost entirely, a referendum on Kathleen Blanco," said Pearson Cross, a political scientist at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, noting a fundamental political rule of incumbency in campaigns.
"Now, (candidates) will be evaluated for their merits," Cross said. "Before, Jindal didn't have to run on his own merits; he could run against Blanco and her performance."
The governor's departure also opens the field for other Democrats and perhaps for lesser-known candidates already in the race -- Democratic Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell and state Sen. Walter Boasso, R-Arabi -- to get more attention.
State Democratic Party Chairman Chris Whittington said he expects several Democrats to look at the race, but he declined to speculate on names. U.S. Rep. Charlie Melancon, D-Napoleonville, said Tuesday he won't run. Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu released a statement dealing only with Blanco's announcement. Efforts to reach Treasurer John Kennedy were not successful.
Ed Renwick, director of New Orleans' Loyola Institute of Politics, said Breaux is the winner simply because he can now pursue the job. Breaux has previously expressed interest, but said he would run only if Blanco did not.
Jindal has big lead
Prominent Louisiana pollster Bernie Pinsonat confirmed Breaux's potential strengths as a candidate, but cautioned that Jindal remains the front-runner. A recent Pinsonat survey of state voters shows Jindal garnering 59 percent of the vote when matched against Blanco and Campbell, who checked in at 24 percent and 4 percent, respectively. In January, Jindal topped Blanco 57 percent to 31 percent.
Jindal was the choice of 73 percent of white voters in the more recent poll. Considering Democrats' typically overwhelming support among black voters, Republicans generally need to collect six out of 10 white votes to win statewide elections. "At 73 percent, he's still got a long way to fall before he's in trouble," said Pinsonat.
Breaux and Jindal, a second-term congressman from Kenner, each tipped his hat to Blanco in carefully crafted statements released shortly after the governor announced her intentions via statewide television.
"This is the governor's day, not mine," Jindal said in the e-mail release. "Campaigning can wait."
In his statement, Breaux focused only on Blanco and did not mention the election. But others said the idea of a Breaux candidacy can do nothing but gain steam after Tuesday.
"I think if he were definitely out, he would have said she's been a good governor and I hope we find a good candidate," said Rich Masters, a Democratic analyst and former spokesman for Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La.
Breaux, a popular figure who left office in 2005, has been openly flirting with running since early February, when supporters at Washington Mardi Gras urged him to get in the race. The same weekend, Breaux hosted a fundraiser for Blanco that pulled in a disappointing $100,000. Blanco reported a $3 million campaign account balance before the event.
Breaux attack ads
Recently, Breaux has been the target of Republican attack ads questioning his eligibility to run and charging that he has turned his back on Louisiana as a highly paid Washington lobbyist.
Masters said the strategy could backfire. "Louisiana people want Washington to pay attention to them, and no one knows their way around Washington better than John Breaux," he said. "The Jindal people are trying to paint him as a carpetbagger. Their biggest attack line may end up helping him."
Bob Mann, who has worked for both Blanco and Breaux, agreed that the recent GOP offensive won't deter the former senator. "I personally think it's a blunder on their part trying to dissuade someone from running by challenging their manhood, which is what I think their campaign amounts to," said Mann, now an LSU faculty member. "It's an indication how worried the Republicans are about Breaux's candidacy and how strong he would be."
Pinsonat, the pollster, said Jindal performs strongly when matched against Breaux, but Pinsonat did not provide those numbers.
Critical to Breaux's decision, according to those who know him, is the opinion of his wife, Lois. She was not enthusiastic about a run four years ago when Breaux first toyed with the idea, they said, but now she is fully supportive.
Campbell and Boasso both said their plans are unaffected by Blanco's announcement.
"I'm running against the establishment -- I don't care who it is," said Boasso, who is battling state Republican Party efforts to adopt an endorsement policy he said is designed for Jindal. GOP Chairman Roger Villere confirmed his hope Tuesday that the party unites behind Jindal.
Asking the questions
The only north Louisiana candidate, Campbell said he could pick up support from Democrats loyal to Blanco. But he said his message -- repealing income taxes while imposing new levies on oil companies -- would not change.
Campbell did say he hoped Blanco's departure would open up debate in the race. "I think it's healthy for the state to have an open seat," he said. "Let's have a good, open, honest discussion with everything on the table, no sacred cows."
Cross said the race is bound to be nasty, offering the early anti-Breaux ads as evidence. But he said Campbell might be on to something: "Now we can talk about the future, not the past. . . . OK, the storms (are) over. What do we want to do? Where do we want to go? What kind of state do we want?"
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Bruce Alpert and Bill Walsh contributed to this report from Washington, D.C.