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New Orleans Mayoral Debate Goes National

Mayor Ray Nagin sought Monday during a nationally televised debate — extraordinary for a municipal election — to stake his claim as the leader who weathered Hurricane Katrina.

"I've been here, and I have a plan," he said during the closing of the mayoral debate hosted by MSNBC and WDSU-TV, the local NBC affiliate.

NBC had judged that the debate would draw enough interest to warrant airing it coast-to-coast. Too, displaced New Orleans residents are still spread across the country.

The tone of the mayor's race has been largely civil, with many of the leading candidates hesitant to attack Nagin or one another. But as Saturday's election approaches, the candidates have gotten more aggressive.

Monday's debate, moderated by Chris Matthews of MSNBC's "Hardball" and WDSU-TV anchor Norman Robinson, included Nagin and six other leading candidates.

The others were nonprofit executive Ron Forman, Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, corporate lawyer Virginia Boulet, businessman Rob Couhig, the Rev. Tom Watson and former City Councilwoman Peggy Wilson.

Nagin and the others are among nearly two dozen candidates who will appear on Saturday's ballot.

If a candidate wins more than half the votes Saturday, he or she wins the election, but a run-off between the top two finishers on May 20 is likely.

With less than half of the city's 455,000 pre-Katrina residents back home, the election's outcome remains uncertain. But most political observers expect Nagin to advance to a runoff against Landrieu or Forman.

All three men were friends going into the race, but Forman and Landrieu have become more combative in the waning days of the campaign.

Forman charged Monday that city and state leaders had failed for two decades before Katrina hit on Aug. 29. "What have you been doing for 20 years?" he asked the lieutenant governor.

Landrieu shot back, saying he's been working on ethics issues and helping to develop the state's tourism business, including securing money for the Audubon Institute, the nonprofit Forman has been credited with growing into a major institution.

The election is expected to largely hinge on turnout and race, with many displaced black voters fearful they may be left out of the city's rebuilding effort.

More than 16,000 ballots were cast last week by mail or at satellite polling places set up in New Orleans and elsewhere in Louisiana.

Of those, two-thirds were cast by black voters, according to the secretary of state's office.