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Racing to run a city that is not

Politics | It's the candidates who did not make New Orleans' runoff election roster-conservatives-who can swing mayoral results. But will the voters show?

Issue: "A few good men," May 6, 2006

So prepared were Louisiana's 2,000 election workers for the hot-button mayoral election in New Orleans on April 22 that nothing caught them by surprise-not even when lights went out at Baptist Theological Seminary. A sudden power outage brought voting to a halt at the school, one among scores of polling places where 108,153 ballots were cast on Election Day. But, anticipating just such an emergency, Louisiana secretary of state Al Ater had already ordered hotlines connecting polling sites with the power company; at the seminary, voters stayed put and in only 40 minutes, balloting resumed.

Whether Mayor Ray Nagin will stay put, though, remains an open question, one that hangs on a complex mix of issues including economics, key endorsements, a far-flung electorate, and the fickle dynamics of runoff elections. Race, meanwhile, may now be the least important factor of all.

The official tally on April 23 showed Mr. Nagin, an African-American, had raked in 38 percent of the vote to Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu's 29 percent. That prompted some media outlets to predict that Mr. Landrieu, who is white, will in a May 20 runoff handily pocket the votes that went previously to second- and third-place finishers Ron Forman and Rob Couhig, who are also white-and move into city hall.

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But New Orleans insiders call such racial calculus "simplistic."

"It's going to be a real battle and it's going to be close," said Jeff Crouere, a New Orleans political commentator and talk-radio host of Ringside Politics. "I'd give a slight edge to Landrieu. But all Nagin needs to win is 20 to 25 percent of white vote."

He may get it. About 81,000 Louisiana businesses suffered Katrina- and Rita-related losses, according to the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI), and post-Katrina economic recovery leads a list of voter concerns. Many in the New Orleans business community see Mr. Landrieu, a former state legislator and the liberal scion of a liberal political family (his father, Moon, was New Orleans' last white mayor and his sister, Mary, represents Louisiana in the U.S. Senate) as business-unfriendly. LABI publishes annual and cumulative analyses of state legislators' voting records with respect to business issues. A score of 70 means a lawmaker is reliably pro-business. Mr. Landrieu scored a 24.

Mr. Nagin, on the other hand, won the mayor's seat in 2002 as a pro-business economic reformer and an enemy of city-hall cronyism. A former cable company executive, he crossed party lines in 2004 to endorse Republican Rep. Bobby Jindal for governor. "The jury's still out on how good Nagin's been for the business community, but he still talks a pro-business game," said Mr. Crouere. "He may be effective in peeling away a portion of the white vote by reminding business owners that Landrieu isn't the kind of mayor they want."

Mr. Nagin carried the majority of white voters in 2002. But in the wake of his now-famous "chocolate city" remarks, white voters last week largely abandoned him. In the end, though, skin color may be less important than the blessings of Messrs. Forman and Couhig.

Fourth-place finisher Mr. Couhig is a Republican small businessman and free-market fiscal conservative. Mr. Forman, a former Republican who bolted the party in 2003, is "an old-style conservative Democrat who became the business community's new standard bearer," said Tulane University assistant professor of political science Brian Brox. Mr. Forman on April 22 won 17 percent of the vote, drawing former Nagin supporters who deserted the incumbent based in part on his post-Katrina recovery fumbles and in part on his impolitic tongue.

Messrs. Forman and Couhig have both said they will endorse a runoff candidate, and Mr. Forman promptly sided with Mr. Landrieu. But runoffs are mercurial beasts with wildly unpredictable turnouts. In 2002, for example, 45 percent turned out for the general election compared with 42 percent in the runoff. In 1998, the numbers were 36 percent and 13 percent. Thirty-six percent of voters cast ballots in the April 22 contest. On May 20, any drop-off in turnout may be aggravated by the fact that many New Orleans voters must travel again to Louisiana to have a voice in their city's future.

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