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Louisiana's Mary Landrieu adopts risky strategy in bid to keep Senate seat

METAIRIE, La. — In the months before Congress passed the president's healthcare law, Sen. Mary L. Landrieu faced a deluge: The office phones rang off the hook, the mail was heavy and a few restive constituents — well aware of the cameras — showed up at her events urging her to vote against it.

The three-term Louisiana Democrat was one of the final holdouts, but ultimately she backed the bill. And now in this red state — where President Obama lost by 18 percentage points in 2012 — her opponents intend to make her pay the price.

As her poll numbers have plunged during the bumpy Obamacare rollout, Landrieu has rushed to contain the damage. When about 90,000 health insurance plans were canceled in her state because they did not meet the new law's requirements, she swiftly introduced a legislative fix and bucked the White House by enlisting other Senate Democrats to support it before the president announced his own adjustment.

She has distanced herself from the program's failures, sometimes by flinging darts in Obama's direction: "What I've said to the president is: 'You told them that they could keep it,'" she said of the canceled insurance plans in a news clip featured in her defiant new campaign ad. "I'm fixing it … and I've urged the president to fix it."

Landrieu is one of a small group of vulnerable Senate Democrats with the bad luck to be running in hotly contested races under the substantial shadow of Obamacare. The central question for Landrieu is a variation on what faces all of those incumbents: whether her rebukes of the president, and her intensive focus on local issues like flood insurance, will be enough to maintain her edge in suburban areas like Metairie, where she has built a winning coalition in her previous races by attracting Republican votes.

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Landrieu's strategy is not without risk. While distancing herself from the law she must also avoid alienating black voters, whose solid support has been a key element in each of her narrow Senate wins. Complicating matters is Louisiana's complex "jungle" election system: She will not face voters until November, when to avoid a runoff she must vanquish two Republican opponents by winning more than 50% of the vote. Her current poll numbers show her well below that threshold.

Interviews with voters here suggest that Landrieu's biggest challenge is rebuilding her brand as a populist, and one who is less partisan than most Democrats on Capitol Hill. The secret sauce in each of her Senate races, political operatives here say, is the discipline she has shown in running essentially a governor's race, rather a Senate race — casting herself as a fighter for Louisiana on local issues that often carry greater weight with her state's voters than Washington's ideological battles.

Standing with the president on the healthcare law shattered that image for voters like Todd Stremlau, a Metairie Republican who said he had voted for her in the past because he believed she was independent, strong on national defense and influential on Louisiana issues because of her family name. (Her father, Maurice Edwin "Moon" Landrieu, was mayor of New Orleans, a post now held by her brother Mitch.)

With the healthcare law, "she should have known what was coming," said Stremlau, who was grocery shopping with his young daughter in this swing territory near the shore of Lake Pontchartrain. "She made a big mistake by toeing the line on the Democratic side for the healthcare law."

Democrat Zack Braud, a drugstore manager from LaPlace who has also voted for Landrieu in the past, said she had not been vigilant enough in overseeing the dispersal of federal funds after Hurricane Katrina. "They got all kinds of money from the government to do the levees and they haven't been done," Braud said, citing one example.

"Average," he replied when asked to rate Landrieu's performance.

So there is no question why Landrieu has redoubled her efforts to drive through legislation that would block skyrocketing flood insurance rates, while also touting her efforts on coastal restoration and storm recovery.

But at a recent campaign event in Lafayette — the epicenter of the booming energy industry in Louisiana — Landrieu's chief challenger, Republican Bill Cassidy, said his record on those issues is just as strong, and accused Landrieu of trying to distract voters from her support of the healthcare law.

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The Baton Rouge congressman drew national attention after Hurricane Katrina by working with other volunteers to turn a deserted Kmart into a health clinic. As a physician married to a retired surgeon, Cassidy tells voters he'd rather they call him "doctor" than "congressman," and he relentlessly hammers Landrieu for her support of the healthcare law and Obama.

"If you support the president 97% of the time — heck, you've got your gal," he recently told voters at a Lafayette town hall meeting.

But even with all her vulnerabilities, Landrieu also has some clear advantages over Cassidy, who is far less known. Her treasury is robust; her consultants top-notch. Many voters here note her family roots and say they believe that those have helped her deliver federal dollars after Hurricane Katrina.

Landrieu has a good chance of becoming chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which would boost her already substantial prowess in raising money from the oil and gas industry and strengthen her argument that she would be better-positioned to cater to her constituents' needs.

(The move could occur as a result of Obama's nomination of the committee's current chairman, Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, as ambassador to China. If Baucus is confirmed, Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon is expected to take over his post as head of the Senate Finance Committee, leaving the energy position open for Landrieu.)

The least predictable factor may be the influence of outside groups, who count her seat among their top targets in 2014 as Republicans try to gain control of the Senate.

The deep-pocketed Americans for Prosperity, which has spent millions on anti-Obamacare ads this year, began a multimillion-dollar ad campaign shortly before Thanksgiving targeting Landrieu and two other Democratic senators. One 30-second ad — with the tag line "put people first, not politics" — shows a clip of Landrieu saying she would vote for the healthcare bill again.

"Now Landrieu's backtracking and trying to avoid accountability," the female narrator says. "Why didn't she do her job — protect us from Obamacare at the start?"

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The Republican National Committee also hit Landrieu in a round of robocalls charging that she lied by insisting Americans could keep their existing insurance under the new healthcare plan.

But Landrieu could also be helped by fissures in the Republican Party. While Cassidy has drawn establishment support, two tea-party-affiliated outside groups, Madison Project and the Senate Conservatives Fund, are backing Rob Maness, a retired Air Force officer who drew 10% to Cassidy's 34% in a recent Southern Media & Opinion Research poll. Landrieu led the three-way heat with 41%.

It is unclear how much money those groups might spend. But Landrieu reported nearly $5.8 million in cash on hand at the end of the third quarter. (That's more than half the total she raised in her 2008 race, when she defeated State Treasurer John Kennedy, a Democrat turned Republican, 52% to 46%.)

At the end of September, Cassidy had $3.5 million to spend. Maness reported having $16,289.

In a sign of Democratic worries, the Senate Majority PAC leaped into the fray with an ad slamming Cassidy for supporting the government shutdown and the 2013 Republican budget blueprint that would have raised the Social Security retirement age to 70. "That's Cassidy's record in the House; he'd hurt us even more in the Senate," the ad says.

Still, despite all the dollars pouring into this state nearly a year before the election, even Landrieu's critics are quick to point out that she should not be underestimated.

Cynthia Dupree, a Lafayette Democrat who attended a recent Cassidy town hall, said that she and her husband called Landrieu's office "at least a dozen times" to express concern about Obamacare, and were piqued that they "never had a return call."

"She's not listening to her constituency," said Dupree, who said she'd voted for Landrieu many times. "But Mary is a tenacious campaigner. You can never count her out."

maeve.reston@latimes.com

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