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Democrats focus on Louisiana races

Next governor will be unique; Breaux mulls Senate decision

Louisiana Lt. Gov. Kathleen Blanco, a Democrat, faces Republican Bobby Jindal in the November 15 runoff for governor.
Louisiana Lt. Gov. Kathleen Blanco, a Democrat, faces Republican Bobby Jindal in the November 15 runoff for governor.

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(CNN) -- After a week of election setbacks, Democrats hoping to revive their fortunes in the South are now looking hard at Louisiana, where the year's last governor's race will be decided next week and where veteran U.S. Sen. John Breaux will soon decide whether to seek another term in Washington.

Next Saturday, Republican Bobby Jindal, a former health policy adviser in the Bush administration, will face off against Democratic Lt. Gov. Kathleen Blanco in a runoff to decide who will replace GOP Gov. Mike Foster, who is being forced out by term limits.

It could also be a real-life test of Democratic presidential front-runner Howard Dean's thesis that Democrats can win in the South by combining the votes of the party's black base with those of poor whites.

Louisiana is 47th out of the 50 states in household income and has the second-highest percentage of black residents, according to census figures.

Whatever the outcome, the next governor will be unique. Louisiana has never had a woman chief executive; Jindal is just 32 years old and the son of Indian immigrants.

If Breaux decides to leave, Democrats will have five open Southern Senate seats to defend in 2004, a tough task in a region that has been trending Republican. Incumbent Democrats in Georgia, Florida, North Carolina and South Carolina have already announced that they won't be back.

Asked if he had been lobbying the popular Breaux to run again, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, told reporters, "Believe me, I have."

"And if you would, I'd appreciate it," he joked.

Breaux, 59, told CNN that he will likely make his decision at Thanksgiving, "over a nice, fat, deep-fried turkey," a Louisiana culinary specialty.

A senior Democratic aide said Daschle and Senate Minority Whip Harry Reid, D-Nevada, have been working Breaux hard.

Louisiana Republican gubernatorial candidate Bobby Jindal came in first in the October open primary with 33 percent of the vote.
Louisiana Republican gubernatorial candidate Bobby Jindal came in first in the October open primary with 33 percent of the vote.

"Daschle lays on the guilt trip, and Reid does the twisting," the aide said.

The open seats in the South "give us great opportunities for pickups in the Senate," said Ed Gillespie, chairman of the Republican National Committee, in an interview Thursday with CNN's Judy Woodruff's Inside Politics.

However, Gillespie said Republicans are "still anticipating and preparing for a close contest" nationally.

"We know that the electoral college is very evenly divided, and the country is evenly divided," he said.

Waiting in the wings if Breaux goes is U.S. Rep. Chris John, a Democratic moderate in the Breaux mold. The two men are personal friends who both hail from Crowley, a town in the Acadiana region of southwest Louisiana.

But Republicans can be expected to make a strong push for the seat. Though Democrats have a 940,000-voter lead in party registration in Louisiana, President Bush carried 53 percent of the vote in 2000, and Democratic U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu narrowly won re-election in 2002 after a contentious and hard-fought campaign.

On Tuesday, GOP candidates took governorships in Kentucky, where a Republican hadn't won since 1967, and Mississippi, where Gov. Ronnie Musgrove became the fourth Southern Democratic governor ousted in the past year. So a victory by Blanco in Louisiana would be a rare piece of good news from the South for the Democrats.

One recent poll, by the Survey Research Center at the University of New Orleans, found that among likely voters, Jindal led Blanco 44 percent to 40 percent, a margin about equal to the poll's margin of error. Another poll by WWL-TV in New Orleans found that Blanco led Jindal 39 percent to 38 percent among registered voters, with a 4 percentage point margin of error.

Key black vote

A key to the outcome of the race could be the black vote, particularly in the city of New Orleans, where a heavy Democratic tide secured Landrieu's margin of victory last year. A strong black vote next Saturday could similarly push Blanco to victory.

However, Jindal has also been making a major play for the black vote, and this week he secured the surprise endorsement of New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, a black Democrat who said he was supporting "new leadership" over "old politics." Another black political group in the city, the Black Organization for Leadership Development, or BOLD, also endorsed Jindal over Blanco.

A victory in the runoff would cap a remarkable political rise for Jindal, a Rhodes scholar who, at just 32, has already been president of the University of Louisiana System, the state's health secretary and an assistant secretary in the federal Department of Health and Human Services.

He has never held political office. But with the help of Foster and a $2 million campaign war chest, he came in first in October's open primary with 33 percent of the vote, well ahead of Blanco and Attorney General Richard Ieyoub.

In Louisiana, all candidates, regardless of party, run together in a single primary, with the top two vote-getters facing each other in a runoff if no one captures an outright majority in the first round.

Blanco, 60, has served two terms as lieutenant governor and is a former state legislator and chairman of the state Public Service Commission. She is from Lafayette, the largest city in Acadiana, a swing region that also is likely to be important to the outcome.

This month's races for governor, along with Howard Dean's self-confessed clumsiness in talking about the Confederate flag, have focused new attention on how to boost Democratic fortunes in the South.

Southern states' electoral votes

The answer is more than academic heading into the 2004 campaign. Together, 13 Southern states have 168 electoral votes -- almost two-thirds of the total needed for President Bush to win re-election. Last time around he carried them all, and reapportionment has added five more votes to the Southern tally in 2004.

One critic from within the Democrats' own ranks, Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia, said Thursday that it's probably "too late" for the Democrats to compete next year, given the party's current field of presidential hopefuls and Bush's popularity among Southerners.

"They've taken the worst possible feature of the Mondale campaign -- raise your taxes -- and they've taken the worst possible feature of the McGovern campaign -- peace at any price -- and they have combined them," Miller told Woodruff.

--CNN Congressional Producer Steve Turnham contributed to this report.

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