ABBEVILLE, La. – The swamps, bayous and rice fields of Louisiana's Cajun country have emerged as the site of the nation's latest political battleground.
Two congressional districts in southern Louisiana will decide runoff elections next month, giving the Republicans an opportunity to extend their Election Day winning streak. For the Democrats, the races represent a chance to blunt the GOP's momentum.
"There will be a Sunday's worth of news if either party sweeps the two elections," Louisiana State University political scientist Wayne Parent said. "If the Republicans sweep, I think it will certainly add credence to the notion that 2004 was a Bush-Republican year. If the Democrats sweep, it will take a little of the shine off."
The December runoff, held long after the rest of the nation is done with politics, is a Louisiana specialty. The state's open primary system leaves elections unresolved if no candidate can muster over 50 percent in the general election.
Republicans finished on top in both primaries, but the electoral demographics change dramatically in the Dec. 4 runoff. No major polls have been conducted.
Both races are for open seats — one that has always been in Democratic hands, and another that is Republican-held.
In one of the matchups, Republican Billy Tauzin III (search) is running for the seat being vacated by his father. He is opposed by Charles Melancon (search), a former legislator who went on to become a lobbyist for the region's sugar industry.
Tauzin has come under harsh criticism for his youth and inexperience, with detractors saying the 30-year-old BellSouth lobbyist is running on nothing more than his old man's name. One anti-Tauzin ad shows "little Billy" as a boy trying to dress himself in a man's suit.
Tauzin knocked out a strong Republican primary challenge, in part by casting his ultraconservative opponent, state Sen. Craig Romero, as a defender of sodomy. Romero, furious that the party backed "the boy," as he called him, said some of the district's voters thought they were supporting the old man, not the son.
Still, with no record to run on, name recognition is probably Tauzin's biggest asset in a district his father held for nearly a quarter-century.
Republican Charles Boustany Jr. (search), a former heart surgeon who has strong national backing, and Democratic state Sen. Willie Mount (search) are on the ballot in the other race. Mount is a traditional Louisiana Democrat, a conservative who, post-Nov. 2, talks about "values" as much as she can.
The two districts stretch across a colorful span of southern Louisiana, from the oil industry center of Lake Charles near the Texas line, through the Cajun capital of Lafayette, to the marshy lands below New Orleans. Oil, shrimp and Cajun fiddling are big; the region voted heavily for President Bush, yet isn't averse to electing Democrats to other offices.
The key to both parties' success may very well hinge on places like this old Cajun town in the heart of the rice belt, with its 100-year-old red brick Catholic church, central square named for Mary Magdalene, and well-known oyster houses.
For years, Abbeville has been like other towns in Cajun country: They were Democratic safe places.
But Boustany dominated here on Nov. 2, even though Mount's family roots are here and the local governing body, the police jury, has a Democratic majority.
Police Juror E.J. Broussard, a Democrat, turned out this week to see Democratic Gov. Kathleen Blanco endorse her old friend Mount in downtown Abbeville. But Broussard is going with Boustany, an ex-surgeon who speaks of performing 6,000 heart operation.
"He sent chills up and down my spine when he started talking about his patients, and what he's giving up to run. There's other things he could be doing," Broussard said.
Republicans are banking on the personal appeal of Boustany - and the help of star endorsements. Vice President Dick Cheney came down to campaign for him in September, and other such visits could be coming. The grandson of a Lebanese immigrant who made good with a department store in Lafayette, Boustany preaches standard GOP fare about individuals controlling their own destiny in health care and other matters.
Mount preaches more down-home traits - in particular, values.
"This election is about who is going to stand close to our values in Louisiana," she told a crowd here.