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Louisiana voters at polls to pick House candidates, amid large field

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FILE: UNDATED: Louisiana state Sen. Neil Riser, a Republican running for a U.S. House seat in 2013.NeilRiser.com

Louisiana voters choosing the state's newest member of Congress faced a crowded list of candidates on Saturday's ballot, with 14 contenders seeking the 5th District seat.

The special election wasn't expected to decide who will take the U.S. House seat once filled by Rodney Alexander, but rather to whittle down the field of candidates to two men who will face off in a November runoff.

With a huge geographical district and only two months of campaign time, candidates struggled simply to distinguish themselves and drum up name recognition.

The sprawling district covers all or part of 24 parishes, from northeast and central Louisiana into the southeast.

Polls close at 8 p.m. The top two highest vote-getters advance to a Nov. 16 runoff if no one gets more than 50 percent of the vote.

State Sen. Neil Riser, a Republican from Columbia, was the front-runner in the race and raised the most cash for his campaign.

Because Riser got his campaign running so quickly, he's been accused of behind-the-scenes collusion with Alexander and Gov. Bobby Jindal to rig the election schedule in his favor. All three deny the claim.

Five other elected officials are considered the main contenders for the second spot in a runoff: Public Service Commissioner Clyde Holloway, a Republican who served in Congress 20 years ago; state Rep. Marcus Hunter, a Democrat; state Rep. Robert Johnson, a Democrat; Monroe Mayor Jamie Mayo, a Democrat; and state Rep. Jay Morris, a Republican.

The 5th District seat is open because Alexander, a Republican who had been in office more than a decade, resigned from Congress before his term was up. He has taken a job in Jindal's administration.

Alexander announced his resignation plans in August, and Jindal quickly set a special election.

Riser immediately announced plans to run for the congressional seat. Within days, he had lined up endorsements from members of Louisiana's congressional delegation, and he soon hired Jindal's top political strategist and chief fundraiser to work on his campaign.

Both Holloway and Morris have criticized the sequence of events and tried to distinguish themselves from Riser by highlighting their independence from the governor. And both men have poured their own money into the race, to keep pace with Riser's fundraising.

Besides the dispute over Riser's perceived advantage, the messages of Riser, Holloway and Morris don't differ that much. The men highlight themselves as conservatives who oppose the policies of President Barack Obama and want to shrink federal spending.

Among the three Democratic elected officials, Mayo and Hunter have the more traditional Democratic positions of supporting the federal health overhaul and other social safety net programs. Johnson has positioned himself as a socially conservative "Blue Dog" Democrat, opposed to abortion and a proud member of the National Rifle Association.

Another candidate who's gained attention was Republican Vance McAllister, a businessman with the support of the highly popular "Duck Dynasty" television series star Phil Robertson and with the ability to self-fund his campaign.

The district is majority Democrat, but its voters tend to choose Republican candidates in national races.