NEW ORLEANS -- Louisiana Republicans will kick off the 1996 quest for national convention delegates today in party caucuses around the state, with Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas facing only two active competitors -- but high expectations.
Of the Republican field of nine candidates, only commentator Patrick J. Buchanan and Alan L. Keyes, the former Maryland senatorial nominee, are running delegate slates in the seven congressional districts.
The six other candidates are boycotting the voting at the urging of the Iowa Republican Party, which is miffed that Louisiana "stole" its traditional first-in-the-nation caucuses.
Mr. Gramm's chief strategist, Charles Black, reiterated yesterday that he expected Mr. Gramm to win "most, if not all" of the 21 delegates at stake, despite aggressive campaigning by Mr. Buchanan and some appearances by Mr. Keyes. On weekend television, Mr. Gramm himself talked only of winning "a majority."
The Gramm campaign, Mr. Black said, has more than 25,000 Louisiana Republicans "committed and recommitted" to the neighboring Texan and is working hard to turn them out at 42 polling places around the state. With party officials predicting a minuscule turnout -- less than 10 percent of the 486,000 registered Republicans -- it would seem that Mr. Gramm would be home free.
But Mr. Buchanan has taken dead aim at Louisiana. It is a state where, with his populist conservatism, Mr. Buchanan hopes to ++ cripple Mr. Gramm's bid to become the more conservative alternative to Sen. Bob Dole, who is not competing here.
A failure by Mr. Gramm to win the Louisiana caucuses handily would be a major blow to his campaign going into next Monday's Iowa caucuses, where all nine candidates are running.
Mr. Buchanan campaigned Sunday and yesterday, concentrating on the 7th Congressional District in Cajun country, where, Mr. Black predicted, Mr. Buchanan would have his best chance to pick up delegates.
"I think we're going to surprise Mr. Gramm, but I'd hesitate to say how many delegates we'll get, or where," Sandy McDade, Mr. Buchanan's Louisiana campaign manager, said yesterday. "We're strong in several districts."
Here, as elsewhere, Mr. Buchanan has pointed to his opposition to abortion and international trade agreements to try to win over working-class conservatives.
Both candidates are running ads in a low-turnout election process that usually doesn't warrant costly expenditures.
"This is an organizational exercise," Mr. Black said, "and I feel good about it."
But the competition on the airwaves indicates that the Gramm camp is concerned about Mr. Buchanan's efforts.
A new Buchanan TV ad backs a recent order by the new Republican Gov. Mike Foster to end state affirmative action programs. Mr. Foster has said he will vote for Mr. Buchanan.
Mr. Gramm faces a moment of truth in the Louisiana caucuses. He was expected at the outset to enjoy a cakewalk that would have him claim the early delegate lead going into the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire's primary Feb. 20.
He set his sights on finishing second to Mr. Dole in those two states and then making his winning drive as the race turned to Southern states presumably more favorable to him.
But the arrival on the scene of Steve Forbes, the free-spending multimillionaire publisher, pushed Mr. Gramm back to third place or worse in Iowa and New Hampshire polls. A poor showing in Louisiana would be a blow to his chances of surviving into the Southern primaries next month.
Louisiana's new caucuses were engineered to make Louisiana the first to start delegate selection, ahead of Iowa. They replace part of the usual Louisiana primary, which will still be held March 12 to select nine more delegates.
The switch to the caucuses caused resentment among Iowa Republican officials, leading the state party to secure pledges .. from six candidates to boycott the caucuses here. Mr. Gramm, along with Mr. Buchanan and Mr. Keyes, declined to sign the pledge.
Test of Southern opinion
Louisiana party officials have justified their action on the ground that the South, as a growing bastion of Republicanism, should have an early say in the choice of the party's nominee.
The remnants of the Louisiana primary will be part of the Southern-dominated collection of primaries on "Super Tuesday,"
March 12. But by then, at least 20 states will have started choosing delegates, most of them outside the South.
For all of Louisiana's trouble in creating the caucuses and moving the date ahead of Iowa's, today's voting is not expected to be all that representative. Even if 25,000 Republicans vote, they will amount to little more than 5 percent of the Republican constituency.