BATON ROUGE, La. – Boosted by the wild popularity of President Bush, Republican Suzanne Haik Terrell has climbed into a dead heat in her bid to oust Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu and give the GOP a final triumph in the midterm elections.
A Terrell victory Saturday would give Republicans a 52-48 edge in the Senate and make her the first GOP senator from the state since Reconstruction.
The dominant issue in the race has been Bush. The two candidates have told voters they back the president as long as doing so doesn't harm Louisianans -- Landrieu even makes it a point to say she votes with Bush about 75 percent of the time.
But it has been Terrell -- who won her first statewide election as elections commissioner just three years ago -- who has cashed in. Bush raised more than $1 million for her this week, and analysts say a visit from a popular president could be worth 2 or 3 percentage points at the polls.
"Terrell clearly has the momentum now with the president's visit," Louisiana State University political scientist Wayne Parent said.
A poll released Monday by the University of New Orleans showed the race in a dead heat and pollsters predicted the outcome would depend on the number of blacks who vote overall and how many whites back Landrieu.
The poll of 700 registered voters showed a sharp split along racial lines. Terrell had 56 percent of the white vote to 31 percent for Landrieu, while Landrieu had 75 percent of the black vote to 10 percent for Terrell.
However, white independents backed Terrell, 52 percent to 31 percent, and analysts said that was because of Bush's immense popularity.
Elliott Stonecipher, an independent political consultant in Shreveport, said Terrell will win if she siphons off enough of Landrieu's white base or energizes conservatives who might not have voted.
Landrieu, who is seeking a second term, landed in Saturday's runoff by failing to win a majority of the vote Nov. 5 in the state's unique open primary. Criticized for running a lackluster primary campaign that some said depicted her as a "me too" Republican, she fired her strategists and launched a more aggressive attack on her opponent in a bid to appear more independent.
Landrieu, 46, has performed a balancing act since Bush has been in office, trying not to offend conservative voters. For example, she voted against so-called partial birth abortions at the risk of losing national abortion-rights support. Some of her black supporters have also complained she doesn't pay enough attention to them.
Terrell, 48, meanwhile, has said she would be more effective in the Senate because she will have more access to GOP leaders -- drawing criticism from Landrieu that she would be a potential "rubber stamp" for the president.
For every 30-second television spot Landrieu airs, Terrell has three or four and she has outraised her opponent. The Republican seems to have weathered criticism by members of her own party for ads suggesting Landrieu lives in a "mansion" on Capitol Hill.
The campaign has become more bitter and personal. In one forum, Terrell said, "As a practicing Catholic, I did not leave my faith, as did Mary Landrieu" -- an apparent reference to Landrieu's abortion-rights stand.
Still, abortion was not the prominent issue it was six years ago when former Roman Catholic Archbishop Philip Hannan said it would be a sin to vote for Landrieu, a Catholic.
According to the latest reports filed with the Federal Elections Commission, Landrieu raised $960,000 in the monthlong reporting period beginning Oct. 17, and had $495,000 in the bank Nov. 17. Terrell raised $1.4 million during the same time and had more than $1 million on hand Nov. 17 -- before the president's visit.
Democrats have suggested a GOP victory will cost the state's working class. While Bush spoke at a fund raiser in an upscale New Orleans hotel, Landrieu and Democratic Sen. John Breaux addressed a smaller crowd at a union hall.
"We don't have fine china," said Breaux, who is highly popular. "We have plastic forks, not fancy silverware because many people we're talking to can't afford $20 for lunch let alone $2,000 a couple."
Also Saturday, voters will choose between Republican Lee Fletcher and Democratic state Rep. Rodney Alexander in a race for an open U.S. House seat. Fletcher is a former chief of staff for GOP Rep. John Cooksey, who gave up the seat to run for Senate.
Alexander, 55, and Fletcher, 36, both tout themselves as conservative businessmen who are anti-abortion.