Story highlights

Sen. Mary Landrieu lags her Republican challenger, Rep. Bill Cassidy, in the polls and the early vote

A tough political climate has Democrats worried about her re-election prospects

She needs a big event during the debate to shift momentum in her favor

(CNN) —  

Louisiana Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu enters what may be the final debate of her political career down in the polls, down in early voting, down in final fundraising tallies and needing — even Democrats admit — a game-changer to hold her seat against Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy this weekend.

Short of Cassidy being charged with “treason,” said independent Louisiana pollster Bernie Pinsonat, “as of today, she’s beat.”

Landrieu finished just ahead of Cassidy in the all-party primary on Nov. 4, but couldn’t draw a majority of the vote, sending the race to a head-to-head runoff that will be decided on Saturday. But Landrieu’s not giving up without a fight.

She’s launched a final line of attack this week, focused on whether Cassidy billed Louisiana State University for more hours of work at the school than he actually completed.

During a Friday conference call with reporters, Landrieu demanded Cassidy bring his LSU time sheets to Monday night’s debate, hinting the attack will feature prominently during the event. It will be the only televised face off between the two in the runoff battle. She also highlighted the issue in a new radio ad.

Landrieu’s getting a double boost of star power on Monday as well, with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton headlining a New York fundraiser for her and crooner Stevie Wonder appearing at one in New Orleans that night.

Democrats are quick to note that Landrieu’s been in tough spots before and eked it out in the end, and is the only candidate in the race to have battled in a runoff and won.

But members of her own party acknowledge that while Landrieu may not have changed, the national atmosphere and the demographic and political makeup of Louisiana, has — and all the worse for the party’s chances of victory.

“I just don’t know if there’s anything she could’ve done that would’ve changed the tide of the voters in the country right now. They’re fed up with the President, and you’re seeing that at the polls,” said Danny Ford, a lobbyist and former Democratic political operative in the state.

Once considered the toughest of all the Democratic incumbents up for re-election, Landrieu looks increasingly likely to succumb to a national anti-incumbent, anti-Obama tide that has wiped out nearly every Democrat in the South this cycle.

There have been few nonpartisan polls of the race, but Cassidy has led in every survey — and by double-digits in the most recent three.

Despite an aggressive get-out-the-vote effort from Landrieu’s campaign and allies, the GOP early vote increased by 4 percent, while the Democratic early vote decreased by 18 percent from the primary to the runoff, according to the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

Perhaps most troubling for Landrieu, the number of blacks voting early decreased from the primary to the runoff by 24 percent. Black voters make up a key portion of Landrieu’s base, and she’ll need them to turn out at primary levels to win this Saturday.

She also entered the final stretch of the campaign with a little more than half of Cassidy’s cash on hand —  $783,000 to his $1.3 million as of Nov. 16, according to federal campaign finance reports.

Her failure to get enough Democratic senators on board to pass a bill authorizing construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, despite repeated pledges she’d make it happen, further weakened her main argument in the race — that her long tenure and clout in the Senate was needed to get things done for Louisiana.

But that argument was rendered largely moot when Republicans won enough seats on Nov. 4 to take control of the Senate in January. And while she’s tried to make the runoff battle a referendum on what she’s characterized as Cassidy’s absence on a number of key issues, Louisiana political observers say Republicans have kept enough pressure on the Democrat to stymie that effort.

“The issue has got to become something other than, Mary voted with Barack Obama,” Pinsonat said. “But nothing else has supplanted that as the issue in the race.”

Indeed, Republican groups have spent millions in the runoff hammering her with negative television ads and mailers. Karl Rove-linked American Crossroads, Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity and the National Rifle Association have all launched attacks, and they were joined Monday by a harsh ad hitting Landrieu on Obama’s “failed policies” from GOP group Freedom Partners.

And Republicans have ramped up their ground effort, wary of the possibility that hunting season could further dampen turnout that’s already expected to be low for both parties on Saturday.

Compared to past battles, Ford said, “I don’t think Republicans are taking it for granted.”

But he noted that Landrieu’s demise had been predicted prematurely in the past — and so the verdict’s still out.

“Everybody’s underestimated her in the past, and they’ve always been able to pull it out,” he said. “Mary’s a fighter. She’s gonna fight up till the end, so I don’t know.”