NEW ORLEANS - President Bush gave an encore of his highly successful campaign act one last time yesterday, trying to give his party's Senate candidate in Louisiana a decisive lift in the final election of the year.
Late polling shows Suzanne Haik Terrell, the Republican state elections commissioner, pulling even with Democratic Sen. Mary L. Landrieu heading into Saturday's runoff. Until recently, the senator had been seen as a safe bet for re-election.
If Terrell wins, which seems increasingly likely, she would be the first Republican elected to the Senate from the state in more than a century. A Terrell victory would mean the difference between a two-seat and a four-seat Republican majority in the Senate when the new Congress convenes.
"For the good of Louisiana and for the good of America, Suzie Terrell needs to be the next United States senator," Bush told 1,100 supporters at a New Orleans hotel luncheon. The event raised $1.25 million for the Republican's campaign, according to a White House official.
Bush's stop put the finishing touch on a two-year presidential drive that has raked in a record sum for his party and its candidates. Earlier, at a rally at the State Fairgrounds in Shreveport, he told a flag-waving crowd that Louisiana should send a member of "the majority party" to Washington "if you want to get something done" - a statement he could not have made before last month's election.
Bush's extensive personal campaigning has been widely credited as a key to Republican gains, including taking back the Senate, expanding the party's margin in the House and keeping a majority of governorships.
The president's Louisiana appearances were "critical" to Terrell's chances, former Gov. Buddy Roemer said in an interview. Roemer, whose switch to the Republican Party more than a decade ago mirrored the party's growth in the South, said Bush's endorsement would be especially valuable in more conservative areas of the state, where supporting the president in time of war is regarded as a patriotic duty.
Bush advisers say they see little risk in putting his personal popularity on the line with the 2002 campaign now in overtime.
"I don't think anybody, two months ago, thought this race was even in play," said Mark McKinnon, the president's media strategist, one of many prominent Republican aides working behind the scenes.
If Landrieu manages to hold her seat, despite the heavy Republican push from Washington, Democratic morale would get a badly needed boost. Her defeat, however, would allow Republicans to widen their majority and claim a larger share of seats on Senate committees.
The Louisiana runoff, the first major election in the Deep South between female candidates, has turned into a Low Country brawl. Both candidates are in their late 40s and live in affluent New Orleans neighborhoods, but the similarities end there.
Landrieu's father was a popular New Orleans mayor and a member of President Jimmy Carter's Cabinet. In a sign of how bitter the campaign has become, Terrell could not resist a personal shot at the senator during yesterday's Bush luncheon, acidly telling the well-heeled audience that "unlike some, I didn't start out as a child to be a politician."
Terrell, who served as a New Orleans councilwoman before winning statewide election three years ago, describes herself as "just a working mom." But she has long been active in party politics and was co-chairwoman of Bush's 2000 presidential campaign in the state.
Since the Nov. 5 election, Landrieu has hired the manager of the successful Democratic Senate campaign in South Dakota and the adman from the victorious Arkansas Senate contest. Meanwhile, the Republicans, in addition to featuring an all-star cast of party figures, appear to be rerunning the strategy that unseated another Southern Democrat last month.
Both sides are force-feeding voters a heavy diet of negative ads and spending a record amount for a Senate election in Louisiana. The state's other senator, Democrat John B. Breaux, has termed it the "second Louisiana Purchase."
Landrieu, who squeaked into office in 1996, may have lost her best chance for re-election when she finished first, by nearly 20 percentage points, on Nov. 5, but failed to win a majority, forcing a runoff against Terrell, the top vote-getter among three Republican challengers. (The state's unusual system does not limit the number of candidates in the November election, which is actually an open primary.)
Until the runoff, Landrieu had campaigned as a conservative Democrat, stressing her support for Bush's initiatives, including his tax cut. Democratic critics have said that this approach might have kept many of the party's core voters, including African-Americans, home.
Now, in a shift, the senator is stressing her independence and her commitment to putting Louisiana first. It is, in part, her way of countering Bush's popularity, which runs higher in this state than in the rest of the country. Landrieu avoids criticizing Bush directly, but she assails Terrell, who she says would be a "rubber stamp" for national Republican policies, such as Bush's decision to impose steel tariffs that hurt the state's economy.
Cast as the victim
In a state where personality often drives politics, Landrieu is casting herself as the victim of more than $10 million in Republican attack ads. In the final debate Monday, she described the campaign against her as full of "bald-faced lies" that have crossed the line by targeting "my family and my faith."
Republican attack ads accuse the senator of having "gone Washington" and highlight a lavish lifestyle that includes an expensive new house she and her husband built four blocks from the Capitol. As a working mother, Landrieu says, she needs to live close to the office.
Republicans, in a reprise of the strategy they used successfully in Georgia, are portraying Landrieu as a liberal out of step with her state's conservative swing voters, especially on social issues. Terrell is hammering her with the same obscure Senate votes - involving the Boy Scouts and the morning-after pill - that Republican Sen.-elect Saxby Chambliss used in Georgia last month.
Landrieu's voting record, according to ratings by the liberal Americans for Democratic Action, puts her to the left of Georgia's Sen. Max Cleland, whose liberalism proved his undoing. She has been considerably more liberal than Breaux.
Republican ads, which term Landrieu the state's most liberal senator ever, accuse her of having voted to let minors receive morning-after pills to prevent unwanted pregnancies, without parental permission, and denying Boy Scouts the right to use public school facilities.
Landrieu, who supports abortion rights and gay rights, squirmed during the final debate when asked about abortion, a key issue in this heavily Catholic state. She refused to explicitly acknowledge her support for abortion rights and instead called abortion "morally wrong," while accusing her Republican rival of changing her position on the issue four times.
Terrell, a former fund-raiser for Planned Parenthood, responded that "as a practicing Catholic," she is "pro-life." But the challenger, whose grasp of national issues appeared shaky at times, stumbled when asked whether she backs the church's opposition to contraception.
"Those are decisions that are often made between a doctor and their patient," Terrell replied, using the language of abortion-rights proponents.
T. Wayne Parent, a political scientist at Louisiana State University, said that if Terrell has a weakness, it is the lingering doubts, among anti-abortion activists, about the sincerity of her opposition to abortion.
Landrieu's chances of retaining her seat depend on a heavy turnout among African-American voters. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus have been campaigning on her behalf.
The senator has relied on the aggressive campaign help of Breaux and other Louisiana Democrats. The risk that visits from better-known Democratic figures might do more harm than good has kept most national party leaders away. On the eve of Bush's visit, Terrell said that if the senator "wants to bring Hillary Clinton and Ted Kennedy down from Washington, that's fine with me."
On Monday, Bush's father was in Monroe, La., urging residents to back the president at a time of national crisis - and to add one more Republican victory to an extraordinary year.
"We want to put the icing on the cake," the former president said.