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Can Landrieu Find Her Voters?

Hurricane Katrina may have decimated New Orleans, the political base of Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), but she and her advisers think they have a winning strategy for her 2008 re-election bid — even if the Big Easy never fully regains its population.

Republicans look at Landrieu’s narrow victories, the state’s displaced, mostly Democratic voters, and the relatively high popularity of President Bush compared with his standing in the rest of the country, and they see a chance to flip yet another Southern Democratic Senate seat in a presidential election year.

No Republican has declared his or her candidacy yet, but several top-tier recruits are considering the race.

Metropolitan New Orleans had roughly 1.4 million residents before Katrina hit in late August 2005. More than 900,000 people have returned to the area but the city of New Orleans, which once boasted close to 500,000 inhabitants, remains only about half of its pre-Katrina size.

Landrieu recently released a poll she commissioned in January showing that she had a 64 percent job approval rating statewide. The survey also asked the more than 1,000 Louisiana residents polled if they thought Landrieu deserved re-election and pitted her against several Republicans who are considering challenging her. But a Landrieu spokesman declined to release those results.

Still, some Democratic operatives believe that Landrieu is in good shape as she begins her bid for a third term.

“Mary’s actually doing the right thing now,” said one knowledgeable Democratic strategist who did not want to be named. “She’s voting center-right, pushing for hurricane relief funds” and reaching out to other parts of the state beyond New Orleans.

Landrieu’s efforts to prove her commitment to the rest of the state are evident in her news releases.

Last week she announced that Louisiana will get $22.5 million in grants from the Housing and Urban Development Department. The release highlighted several projects, including one for a women’s center in northwest Louisiana.

Undoubtedly Landrieu’s biggest coup to date — her involvement in opening a huge swath of the Gulf of Mexico to oil and gas production — should earn her plaudits across the state.

“Just bringing money to the state will have a ripple effect,” the Democratic strategist said. “The state will benefit overall; there will be more employment.”

The deal signed by Bush last year splits 37.5 percent of the new revenues among Texas, Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana.

Ray Strother, a longtime Democratic consultant and Louisiana native whose firm has worked for Landrieu before, said the daughter of former New Orleans Mayor Moon Landrieu made in-roads with voters outside of the Big Easy even before hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit the state.

“Since she’s been in the Senate almost 12 years, her base is growing,” Strother said. In Shreveport in northwestern Louisiana, for example, “she’s won their affection,” he said.

Still, even loyal Democrats such as Strother concede that any legitimate Republican, including Rep. Richard Baker, who is contemplating running, will give her a tough race.

“She’s a Southern Democrat — of course it’s going to be close,” Strother said.

Landrieu won a second term in 2002 with just 52 percent of the vote against a relatively unknown Republican opponent — and that was in a nonpresidential year. Outside of Orleans Parish, Suzanne Haik Terrell (R) earned 53 percent of the vote to Landrieu’s 47 percent.

But the statistics are not as dire for Landrieu as they may seem, Landrieu spokesman Adam Sharp said.

New Orleans was emptied after Katrina and residents were bused to Houston, Atlanta and beyond. But a sizable number — some estimates say it was as much as 85,000 people — simply relocated within the state.

Former New Orleans residents already are flexing their political muscle in their new communities, Sharp said. For instance, Shreveport elected its first black mayor, a Democrat, last year.

And registered voters still living outside the state’s borders will be allowed to vote absentee in this year’s gubernatorial election as well as next year’s federal elections. Some 43,000 Louisianans already informed state election officials that they are registered to vote in the Pelican State even though they are living elsewhere.

The New Orleans mayoral race last year, which featured Landrieu’s brother, Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu (D), saw the candidates buying air time in Houston and Atlanta and holding “town hall” meetings beyond Louisiana’s borders.

Sharp predicted that trend will continue.

“I think you’re going to see a lot of that again in the gubernatorial race,” he said. “We’re watching that race closely to see what the new dynamic is going to be for statewide campaigns.”

Only 20,000 displaced New Orleans residents voted absentee in the mayoral race, though no one knows how many returned to vote in person.

Sharp said Landrieu’s campaign, once it’s up and running, will devise a system for locating and targeting those eligible out-of-state voters. TV commercials airing in neighboring states, direct mail sent to households without Louisiana ZIP codes, e-mail newsletters and fundraising pleas sent far and wide likely will be an integral part of the 2008 Senate race.

“It’s unprecedented,” Sharp said.

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