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The Times-Picayune - Mary Landrieu: Centrist with Experience

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The Times-Picayune - Mary Landrieu: Centrist with Experience

By Ed Anderson

After two terms in the U.S. Senate, Democrat Mary Landrieu says she has learned that two things are important when serving in the Capitol: seniority and effectiveness.

Landrieu says she has been effective for her first 12 years and wants six more to build more seniority, which will result in greater effectiveness. "I use my seniority to deliver for the state," Landrieu said.

To do that, she will have to get past Democrat-turned-Republican John Kennedy, the state treasurer for almost nine years, and three lesser-known candidates in the Nov. 4 election.

Landrieu and Kennedy, and their two political parties, have so far gone toe-to-toe in a hard-hitting media campaign.

The Democrats have aired a series of ads labeling Kennedy as a flip-flopper and "one confused politician" for running as a conservative and embracing the Republicans after running and losing a Senate race in 2004 as a liberal Democrat and backer of Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry's presidential bid.

In return, Kennedy and the GOP have campaigned on a theme of changing the spending environment in Washington by "changing the senator." They have labeled Landrieu one of the biggest liberals in the Senate and a backer of abortion rights who is "just too liberal for Louisiana."

Landrieu is used to being hit with the "L word" in campaigns. "It is old and tired and not true," she said.

She said while she is in favor of women having the right to choose to have an abortion, she has been active in adoption matters and has voted to restrict late-term abortions and the transporting of minors across state lines to have an abortion.

"I do not have Emily's List support in this election nor in the last election" in 2002, Landrieu said, referring to the organization that helps raise money for Democratic women who support abortion rights.

She also shoots back at Kennedy, reminding voters that he was "at one time pro-choice and counseled (then-Gov. Buddy) Roemer to veto" a strong anti-abortion bill two decades ago, which Roemer did. Lawmakers overrode that veto, making Roemer the first governor in modern times to suffer that political fate.

Landrieu also burnishes her moderate-centrist credentials, pointing out she has voted with President Bush on issues key to the White House 64 percent of the time during the past eight years and against her own party leadership on key issues 22.2 percent of the time, the second-highest of a senator voting against her party.

She also points to a study by The National Journal, a weekly magazine that reports on politics and emerging policy trends, that says she is "at the center of the Senate" as one of its moderates, with 48 senators more liberal than her and 48 more conservative. The others were not ranked because of missed votes on key issues.

"She has shown her conservative credentials," said Kurt Corbello, an associate professor of political science at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond. "And she knows the inside of Washington."

Landrieu said as a third-term senator, she can be more effective, possibly winning a key committee chairmanship, especially if Democrats increase their Senate majority.

By playing up her clout and seniority, said Pearson Cross, chairman of the Department of Political Science at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette, Landrieu presents "a good counter" to Kennedy's campaign theme that "Washington is broken and we need to fix it. . . . Washington is where we look for help in extraordinary times," like getting money and programs for hurricane recovery.

--- 'The go-to person' ---

Landrieu brags about spearheading the effort to get billions of dollars in aid to help recovering hurricane victims, including $3 billion to keep the Road Home program alive when it appeared to be running out of money. She also said her growing seniority has helped pass legislation opening up about 8.3 million acres of land along the Outer Continental Shelf for energy exploration and has secured a 37.5 percent cut of future oil and gas revenue for coastal restoration and flood protection, which could mean $10 million a year for the state through 2017 and hundreds of millions a year after that.

The incumbent says she wants to speed the federal government's allocation so the state gets the bigger money sooner. She said she also wants to return to the Senate to continue getting money to help the state not only recover from the 2005 disasters of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, but snag money for the damage from Hurricanes Gustav and Ike -- and possibly help overhaul the way FEMA operates.

"She was our linchpin," said former Gov. Kathleen Blanco, whose political career came to an abrupt end as 2005 hurricane recovery efforts lagged. "She is the go-to person. . . . We'd be sitting here empty-handed because we have a very youthful, inexperienced delegation. Her loss would be devastating."

Landrieu also has the backing of two key business groups: the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Businesses, whose causes Landrieu has supported more than 70 percent of the time.

--- Crossover appeal ---

To the consternation of state GOP officials, several elected Republicans have come out in favor of Landrieu over Kennedy, none more so than St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Jack Strain, a conservative in arguably the most conservative parish in the state, and Kennedy's home parish.

Strain, who is featured in a television commercial extolling Landrieu's effectiveness and integrity, said the disdain by the state GOP is unwarranted. "It is not (party) politics with me," Strain said. "The very first federal representative we had on the ground (in St. Tammany Parish) after Katrina was Mary Landrieu . . . when water was still in our houses and neighborhoods. . . . She spoke to my deputies and offered assistance to them."

Strain said that at "6:15 the morning Gustav hit, the first call I had was from Mary Landrieu and she wanted to know if we needed anything. What else could we ask for? John Kennedy has never been in my office."

Former Sen. John Breaux, a Democrat who mentored Landrieu, said her biggest strength now is her ability to build coalitions and govern from the political center.

"Most people in Louisiana feel they are in the middle," he said. "It is important not to be far left or far right." Because of her ability to work with Democrats and Republicans, Breaux said, Landrieu "is a person with two parties; both sides need her. . . . The longer she is there, the better she becomes. She is just hitting her stride" now.

Landrieu points to her work with Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine to forge a centrist "Common Ground Coalition" to try to avert as much partisan wrangling as possible in the Senate. Landrieu also said she and others created the "Gang of 10," which initially focused on judicial nominations and is now involved in other issues, including energy.

Former U.S. Rep. Billy Tauzin, a Democrat-turned-Republican, said Landrieu has learned "when to be loyal to her party and when to value Louisiana first. . . . She has done a fairly good of that."

--- Riding high in the polls ---

Tauzin said Landrieu will have "a tough race," although a recent poll had her leading Kennedy by 13 points.

When she won her first term in 1996, she squeaked by conservative lawmaker Woody Jenkins of Baton Rouge by a scant 5,788 votes, an outcome that prompted claims of voter fraud and a congressional review into the election. In her re-election bid in 2002, she defeated former state elections commissioner Suzanne Haik Terrell by 42,012 votes -- 52 percent to 48 percent.

"The (poll) numbers suggest it is not going to be as close unless things turn around" for Kennedy, said ULL's Cross. "This will be her easiest win" yet.

Political consultant-pollster Bernie Pinsonat of Southern Media and Opinion Research of Baton Rouge said even through Landrieu has a 12 to 13 percentage point lead in recent polls, the race might tighten with the large turnout expected from Democrats and Republicans for the presidential race.

She has "never landslided anybody," Pinsonat said. Kennedy "is not a great candidate, and so far she is having a fairly easy time with him."

"I'll be happy to win by one vote," Landrieu said, "but I'll win by more than that." She did not venture a prediction.

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