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KATC - Analysis: Kennedy Switches in Second Senate Bid

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Location: Baton Rouge, LA

KATC - Analysis: Kennedy Switches in Second Senate Bid

State Treasurer John Kennedy wants your vote in the U.S. Senate race. But first he wants you to know he's a conservative Republican, not the populist Democrat he ran as four years ago for the job.

While rebranding yourself to the state's voters might seem daunting to many a politician, Kennedy's facing this issue head on, with the straight-talking, brash style he's used repeatedly over the years. His supporters believe _ and hope _ that approach could neutralize the party switch discussion and turn the talk to other matters.

His critics call him a political opportunist, but Kennedy's pitching himself as a man never embraced by his former Democratic Party, who held his nose to endorse a Democrat for president four years ago and who shouldn't ever be defined by a party label.

"Party's never been the most important thing in my life. I've always seen government through a policy lens, not a party lens," he said on the first day of a campaign bus tour last week.

The pendulum swing on his Senate race stances, however, is noticeable. Whether it will register as an issue with voters is unknown.

Kennedy ran for the U.S. Senate in 2004 as a left-leaning Democrat who backed John Kerry for president, railed against President Bush's tax cuts and pushed a minimum wage increase. Republican David Vitter handily won that race.

Now, four years later as he runs against Democratic incumbent Mary Landrieu, Kennedy's fashioning himself as a GOP conservative who wants to continue the war in Iraq, repeatedly references his support of John McCain for the White House and praises Ronald Reagan.

Kennedy switched parties last year.

He calls his endorsement of Kerry an awful mistake that bothered him immensely, and he reminds anyone who'll listen that he fought repeatedly with powerful Democratic state officials during his years as treasurer.

"In 2004, I did endorse Sen. Kerry, and I wish I had it back. I was miserable the entire time. I made a mistake," Kennedy said.

Political analysts say the spin can work, that Louisiana voters don't necessarily care about the party label and don't typically remember rhetoric from years ago.

"Voters seem to lose track of who used to be a Republican or Democrat pretty quickly," said Pearson Cross, a University of Louisiana at Lafayette political scientist.

The party primary election is scheduled for Sept. 6 and the general election is Nov. 4.

Cross said Republicans seem to have embraced Kennedy in the race against Landrieu, who is seeking her third term and whose seat is considered vulnerable. Indeed, Kennedy's gotten the endorsement of the state Republican Party, and Cross said he expects GOP voters who tend to vote along party lines to overwhelmingly punch the button for Kennedy in the voting booth.

To sway others, Kennedy can point to his lengthy history of disputes with Democratic leaders in Louisiana to bulk up his GOP street credentials.

In the years leading up to his party switch, Kennedy became increasingly more of an outsider in the state Democratic Party. He regularly battled with Democratic former Gov. Kathleen Blanco's administration over financial matters.

One of his most public disputes with Democrats involved former Agriculture Commissioner Bob Odom and former state Senate President Don Hines. Kennedy helped kill their proposal to build a state-financed sugar syrup mill in Hines' central Louisiana district amid questions of financial viability about the project.

Kennedy is playing up that part of his Democratic history, telling a crowd on one of his bus tour stops, "I've made some powerful people mad through the years" before describing the litany of disagreements he had with Democrats.

That explains the politics, but will he be able to explain the noticeable changes in his policy platforms? With the campaign trail likely longer than most voters' memories, he might not even have to.

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