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23 wannabe mayors vie to win New Orleans vote

Katrina leaves city with huge strategic challenges in Saturday's poll

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New Orleans election workers prepare in the Voting Machine Warehouse Thursday.

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New Orleans (Louisiana)
Election

NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana (CNN) -- New Orleans residents will take time out Saturday from their struggles to reclaim their lives to vote in one of the oddest mayoral elections in U.S. history -- a contest to pick the person who will oversee the Crescent City's comeback fight.

Incumbent Mayor Ray Nagin, whose performance before, during and after Hurricane Katrina has been endlessly dissected and critiqued, drew 22 challengers in his bid for re-election, which was postponed nearly three months to give election officials in the storm-ravaged city more time to prepare.

Nagin's strongest rivals are expected to be Louisiana Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, scion of a New Orleans political dynasty, and Ron Forman, a first-time office seeker with strong ties to the city's business community who has raised more than $1.6 million since jumping into the race in mid-February.

If no candidate wins a majority, a runoff election will be held May 20 between the top two finishers.

The biggest question hanging over the election is just how many residents displaced by the storm will vote -- and how the uprooting of so many people will affect the racial balance of politics in New Orleans, which hasn't had a white mayor in nearly 30 years.

Nearly eight months after Katrina roared ashore and unleashed catastrophic flooding, estimates are that more than six out of 10 New Orleanians are still living outside the city. Any displaced resident who has not registered to vote in another jurisdiction is allowed to participate in the election, presenting a daunting logistical challenge for election officials.

"It's a major undertaking, to say the least," said Louisiana Secretary of State Al Ater, whose office has overseen election preparations. "I tell people we're in uncharted waters."

With much of the city still in ruins, polling stations have been consolidated to 76 locations, instead of the 262 used in the last mayoral election four years ago. Ten satellite voting centers were also set up around the state for early voting by people who couldn't make it to New Orleans.

In addition, more than 16,000 people have requested absentee ballots for this election, compared with just 160 four years ago. The tab for this year's election is expected to be $4 million, about 10 times the usual cost.

Civil rights groups challenged the election plan in court, charging that it favored white voters because while most of the displaced voters living inside Louisiana are white, most still outside the state are black. They also argued that requiring displaced voters to pay to travel to Louisiana amounted to an unconstitutional poll tax.

Campaign billboards far from home

The groups wanted the state to establish satellite voting stations in cities such as Houston and Atlanta, where many displaced voters live -- an idea state officials said was both impractical and legally questionable. A federal judge rejected their challenge in late March.

The specter of so many people outside New Orleans participating in the vote forced candidates to venture out of the city and make campaign appearances across Louisiana, as well as in Texas, Georgia and other states. Some of them also advertised in far-flung locations: Drivers in Atlanta were doing double takes at seeing Nagin billboards in their city, some 470 miles from New Orleans.

The latest figures from the Louisiana Secretary of State's office show the city has about 298,000 registered voters, about 63 percent of whom are black.

However, the Katrina-related flooding devastated heavily black areas such as New Orleans East and the lower 9th Ward, where very few residents have been able to return, while sparing some mostly white areas such as the French Quarter and Uptown, where many residents quickly came back.

The perception of a possible racial shift in the city's voting demographics is reflected in the makeup of the field in the mayoral race. Of the three candidates seen as the front-runners for runoff spots -- Nagin, Landrieu and Forman -- only Nagin is black.

Tuesday night, when seven leading candidates were invited to participate in a televised mayoral debate, only two black faces were on the stage at Loyola University -- Nagin and the Rev. Tom Watson. The five white candidates were Forman, Landrieu, former City Council President Peggy Wilson and two political newcomers, Virginia Boulet and Robert Couhig, both attorneys.

But according to the secretary of state's office, the racial breakdown among absentee and early voters was roughly the same as the breakdown for registered voters as a whole, indicating no major demographic shift.

'Chocolate city' remark leaves bitter taste

In January, Nagin came in for blistering criticism when he vowed New Orleans would remain a "chocolate city," with a black majority, because "it's the way God wants it to be."

While he eventually apologized, the remarks have continued to dog him, with T-shirts on sale in the French Quarter lampooning Nagin by likening him to fictional chocolatier Willy Wonka.

Four years ago, when Nagin won the mayor's post in his first try for political office, he had strong support among the city's white voters. But in a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll in late February, 56 percent of white voters living in the city said they would definitely vote against Nagin; only 29 percent of black voters said they were completely opposed to giving him a second term.

That poll did not take into account the views of residents who had not returned to the city.

'We don't want the pimps'

The racial undercurrent in the mayor's race surfaced again in a March debate when Wilson, a white Republican, said not all of the displaced residents should be welcomed back.

"We don't want the drug dealers. We don't want the gangs. We don't want the pimps. We don't want the welfare queens," she said. A Wilson television ad picked up on the theme, saying public housing should be "color-blind, not color-bound."

In a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans by better than a 5-to-1 ratio, most of the candidates running -- including Nagin, Landrieu, Forman, Watson and Boulet -- are Democrats. Wilson and Couhig are the only Republicans. In Louisiana, all candidates run together on the same ballot, regardless of party.

Campaign finance reports filed with the Louisiana Board of Ethics showed that as of early April, Forman had raised $1.63 million for the race, slightly ahead of Landrieu, who had raised $1.57 million. Nagin raised just $98,000 this year, although he already had raised $1.77 million over the previous three years in anticipation of a re-election bid.

Nagin, 49, was a cable company executive before winning the mayor's office in 2002 on a platform of fighting corruption in city government. He has argued during this campaign that with recovery efforts in full throttle, "now is not the time to change leadership."

Landrieu, 45, has one of the best-known names in New Orleans politics. A state legislator before being elected lieutenant governor in 2004, he is the brother of U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu and the son of Moon Landrieu, the city's last white mayor, who left office in 1978.

The Landrieu clan's deep political roots in the city's black community may help him draw voters from across the racial divide.

As president and CEO of the Audubon Nature Institute, Forman, 58, oversaw the creation of the city's acclaimed zoo and aquarium. His wife, Sally, was Nagin's communications director until the week before her husband entered the mayoral race, when she resigned.

While Forman has not run for political office before, his ties to the city's business community have made him a formidable candidate. He has campaigned on the mantra of providing the city with "new, decisive leadership."

CNN's John King, Robert Yoon and Molly Levinson contributed to this report.

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