KWAME HOLMAN: Mary Landrieu says the last few weeks have felt like an out-of-body experience. On Election Day, the Louisiana Democrat easily outpolled eight other candidates challenging for her seat in the United States Senate. Now, one month later, the freshman Senator is running for her political life.
SEN. MARY LANDRIEU: I know that this election is going to be very close because the national, you know, party, operatives in Washington have spent $15 million lying about my record, distorting my record, attacking, you know, my faith, my family in a very personal way.
Now the scheme to manipulate -- out of Washington -- to manipulate the race in Louisiana seems to maybe is going to work, but it's not, because the people of Louisiana are going to say "no!"
KWAME HOLMAN: The scheme, as Landrieu describes it, is an attempt by the national Republican Party to manipulate Louisiana election law. That law requires a candidate to capture 50 percent of the vote. Last month, Mary Landrieu totaled 46 percent. She and fellow democrats charge the Republican Party flooded the ballot with candidates simply to dilute Landrieu's support, forcing a runoff with the second highest vote-getter. That's Suzanne Terrell.
SUZANNE TERRELL: Vote on Saturday, thank you.
KWAME HOLMAN: Suzanne Terrell is the state election commissioner and served on the New Orleans city council. She was relatively unknown politically when she entered the Senate race last summer and on Election Day captured 27 percent of the vote.
SPOKESPERSON: The President of the United States, George W. Bush. (Cheers and applause)
KWAME HOLMAN: On Tuesday, President Bush traveled to Louisiana to campaign on Terrell's behalf, one day after George Bush senior had. State Republican Chairman Pat Brister says Terrell has had the advantage of bringing top political figures to the state on her behalf.
PAT BRISTER: We are very proud to have the President come, the Vice President come, because they know Louisiana values. Mary is not so proud about the company she keeps in Washington. She doesn't want Hillary Clinton or Al Gore or President Clinton down here. And I think that's a very telling tale that she likes them in Washington and she votes with them in Washington, but she doesn't want them beside her here in Louisiana.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: For the good of Louisiana, for the good of everybody in Louisiana, Suzie Terrell needs to be the next United States Senator! (Cheers and applause)
KWAME HOLMAN: Terrell is a longtime friend of the President's. She ran his successful statewide campaign here two years ago. Now, running a campaign of her own, Terrell promises her loyal support to the President.
SUZANNE TERRELL: And I know you want a Senator who will bend your ear about what's important to Louisiana, and you know I will. (Laughter) But I will also stand with you to move our country forward. I will not be a roadblock to your leadership. (Cheers and applause)
SUZANNE TERRELL: But when I disagree with the President, we can have that dialogue. Unfortunately for Louisiana now, we don't have a Senator that can disagree with the President and have the dialogue. We have the Senator that is going to disagree with the President and make it a political statement. We have a Senator who admitted in the Washington Post that she's barely on speaking terms with Trent Lott. This doesn't bode well for our state. We need someone who can work across party lines and within Congress.
KWAME HOLMAN: But Mary Landrieu also has been a supporter of the President. Her voting record in the Senate shows she has sided with him 74 percent of the time, including votes in favor of the President's tax cut package, homeland security legislation, and his use of force resolution against Iraq. Landrieu anxiously played up her support for the President prior to the November 5th election. In hindsight, some believe that was a mistake.
REP. WILLIAM JEFFERSON: It was the wrong kind of campaign to run. I think that it was horribly run.
KWAME HOLMAN: William Jefferson is a New Orleans Democrat about to enter his seventh term in the House of Representatives. He says during the first campaign, Mary Landrieu failed to distinguish herself from Suzanne Terrell, and as a result, didn't trigger a strong enough Democratic turnout to avoid a runoff.
REP. WILLIAM JEFFERSON: It dulls the senses because you have both people saying the same thing. They were both for the President, both supported the President, so what's the... what's the point there? You have to obviously make a case that you'd do something different from the other person. But in Landrieu's case, she's the incumbent, and she's not presenting a resume of what she might do and what her paper qualifications are. She actually has a case to make of what she has done.
KWAME HOLMAN: But that's what she has tried to do in this second campaign. Touring the state with Louisiana's senior Senator, John Breaux, Landrieu has been stressing her resume, reminding voters in this state with many pockets of poverty what she has done and can do as a member of the Senate Appropriations, Defense, Small Business, and Energy Committees.
SEN. MARY LANDRIEU: We have people from Washington and all outside of Louisiana asking the people of Louisiana to give up these seats of power, to give up this seniority, to give up this effective and independent voice, for what, for what, so that they can have a rubber stamp for policies that put our people out of work?
KWAME HOLMAN: And this time around, Landrieu has been highlighting her differences with the President.
SEN. MARY LANDRIEU: The President is in town politicking for my opponent. But I'm telling you the same time that he's politicking for my opponent, the policies, some of his policies are harmful to Louisiana. And we need a Senator, two Senators that can say, "Yes, Mr. President we'll be with you when you're right for Louisiana, but when your policies are harmful to our state, like dumping cheap sugar into out state or undermining our oil and gas industry by closing the Gulf when we want to keep that Gulf open, that provides jobs and opportunity for this state, or when you try to put taxes on steel that shut down our ports and have our dock workers and our port employees losing their jobs, then no, we're going to stand up for Louisiana."
KWAME HOLMAN: Polls taken over the last few days show that the runoff election between the Democratic incumbent, Mary Landrieu, and her Republican challenger, Suzanne Terrell, appears too close to call.
KWAME HOLMAN: So how can it be that a sitting U.S. Senator can be facing a virtual unknown and it's a dead heat?
WAYNE PARENT: Well, the President of the United States has a lot to do with that.
KWAME HOLMAN: Wayne Parent is a professor of political science at Louisiana State University.
WAYNE PARENT: The South and Louisiana in particular, is very sort of pro- military, pro-patriotic. And we saw George Bush Senior saying, "this is not about Democrat and Republicans; this is about supporting the President. 9/11, we're at a time of war, this is about getting behind your country." And that would have been a tough thing to perceive because we haven't seen anything like that in 50 years. So I think the aura of this President in this time of crisis is helping the outsider, you know, move to a really tight race and hurt the incumbent in ways that no one would ever have expected a year ago.
KWAME HOLMAN: Because of the national attention this race has attracted, voter turnout tomorrow is expected to be even higher than the 45 percent turnout on Election Day. State Senator and Former Congressman Cleo Fields says Landrieu's chances will be determined by the nearly one- third of the voting population who are African Americans and usually vote reliably Democratic.
STATE SEN. CLEO FIELDS: They're the umpires in this race. They decide if she's safe or if she's out. If they get up Saturday morning and go vote, she's safe. If they don't, she's out.
KWAME HOLMAN: A win by Suzanne Terrell would strengthen the Republicans' slim hold on control of the Senate and add momentum to the President's legislative agenda. A win by Landrieu would give Democrats a cherished victory after their dismal showing in the midterm elections, and provide a morale boost as they build toward 2004.