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The Battle of New Orleans

From the December 9, 2002 issue: The last election of 2002, Terrell vs. Landrieu, may also be the meanest.

Dec 9, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 13 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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NEW ORLEANS

When they faced off in a televised debate here last week, Suzanne Haik Terrell accused Senator Mary Landrieu of abandoning her Catholic faith because of her votes in favor of abortion. The comment--one of the strongest in-person attacks in recent memory--was virtually ignored by the media.

Perhaps that's because the charge is just one among dozens of harsh attacks traded in a race that is quickly becoming one of the most bitter of the 2002 election cycle. Maybe it's because Louisiana voters have heard similar sentiments before. In 1996, Archbishop Phillip Hannan said, if "a person actually believes in Catholic doctrine, then I don't see how they can vote for Landrieu without a feeling of sin." Or maybe the remark was overlooked because Landrieu's protest--she called it the "pit of politics"--was unconvincing. Landrieu, after all, has been playing victim on just about everything. When Terrell criticized her six years representing the Bayou state in the U.S. Senate, the incumbent responded pitifully. "Well, somebody thinks I'm doing a good job." And when Terrell spoke with pride about her three lovely daughters, Landrieu had had enough. "Ms. Terrell, who knows me quite well, fails to say that I also have two beautiful daughters." Oh, the indignity.

The likeliest reason the media missed Terrell's whack at Landrieu's faith is simple. They were focused on Landrieu's meltdown. Shortly after the contentious 30-minute debate, Landrieu menacingly told Terrell: "This is your last campaign." To which a surprised Terrell responded, "She threatened me." Alec Gifford, a local TV anchor and host of the debate, said Landrieu "stalked out of the studio" without saying another word. A Landrieu spokesman tried to spin the outburst as less a threat than a prediction.

Terrell's campaign suggests that Landrieu is just feeling the pressure of a tight election. Polling on the race has been erratic, but most observers believe it will be close. The fact that Landrieu is in the December 7 runoff at all is something of a defeat for the incumbent. In a four-person race on November 5, she failed to win more than 50 percent of the vote in this heavily Democratic state. (Governor Mike Foster is a Republican, but a quirky one, and Louisiana voters have not sent a Republican to the Senate since Reconstruction.) Although the media picked up on Landrieu's post-debate comments, they didn't report an earlier tirade. Landrieu stormed into the studio complaining about the timing of the taping--late Saturday afternoon. When a Terrell staffer reminded her that the format was first proposed by her campaign, she protested again, complained out loud about her clothing, and left the scene to change. Landrieu managed a pageant grin throughout the televised portion of the exchange, which while tense, was cordial compared with the episodes before and after the debate.

Landrieu's behavior is certainly interesting and may reflect the strains of a bitter campaign. But in a state with high concentrations of Catholic voters and highly motivated evangelical Christians, and where the most popular yard signs bear not the names of candidates but a call to "Please Vote Pro-Life," Terrell's criticism of Landrieu's abortion position may ultimately prove more important. That's because the campaign has shaped up as being about power--which candidate will have better access to it, and which will better use that access to advance not just Louisiana interests but "Louisiana values."

With a Republican in the White House and a Senate majority leader, Trent Lott, who lives 70 miles from the Mississippi-Louisiana border, Terrell argues that Louisiana voters would be better served with a senator in the majority party. Landrieu constantly touts her position on the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, arguing that her defeat would leave Louisiana empty-handed when Congress doles out goodies each year. She touted it until last week, anyway. Lott came to Baton Rouge the Monday before Thanksgiving and announced that he was considering a smaller appropriations committee. This, Lott suggested, means Landrieu would be unlikely to keep her seat. And that, Terrell would later explain, "takes the issue away from her."

As for "Louisiana values"--Terrell used that phrase in the first sentence of the New Orleans debate, and returned to it several times over the next half-hour. "The people of Louisiana are extremely family-oriented and they have tremendous faith," she said, defining the term in an interview two days later. "It's a recognition of those things that are important--estate taxes and the tax structure, personal responsibility, raising children, the sanctity of life, guns, crime, and faith. Sixty percent of southern Louisiana is Catholic," she adds. Terrell insists that her opponent is out of touch with those values--voting with Ted Kennedy, Hillary Clinton, and Tom Daschle more than 80 percent of the time.

That, of course, is fair to point out. And it certainly contrasts with Landrieu's attempt to portray her voting record as moderate Democrat, which it is not. (Her record has won her high marks from liberal groups like Americans for Democratic Action. That group said Landrieu voted with its agenda 95 percent of the time in 1999, 80 percent in 2000, and 85 percent in 2001; her scores for those same years from the American Conservative Union were 4, 16, and 28.) But is it appropriate to accuse your opponent of abandoning her faith?

"Maybe it's an inappropriate comment," says Terrell. "I don't know. But as a practicing Catholic, I just don't understand how she can reconcile being a Catholic with her support for federal funding of abortions on overseas military bases, or with distributing morning-after pills in school."

Those "Louisiana values" were precisely the issue emphasized at a fire-up-the-troops rally of Christian conservatives at the Crescent City Baptist Church in Metairie last Monday. The fifty or so people who attended the event, sponsored by the Republican National Committee's Team Leaders program, were greeted by compare-and-contrast fliers from the National Right to Life Committee and the Louisiana Right to Life Federation. The featured speaker, David Barton, founder of a group called the "Wallbuilders," guided the attendees through the American Founding, emphasizing the Christian roots of the Constitution. ("Wallbuilders" alludes not to the so-called wall of separation between church and state, but to the book of Nehemiah, in which the Israelites rallied to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.) Barton thundered against abortion on demand, gay marriage, activist judges, and cultural decay. Finally, he encouraged those in attendance to vote. Citing Proverbs 29:2, he suggested the contest was ultimately one between the "righteous" and the "wicked."

It was striking language--the kind of moral absolutism that drives evangelical conservatives to the polls and drives the left batty. When I asked Terrell whether she was comfortable with that formulation--the righteous and the wicked--she said she didn't know about the presentation and emphasized that her campaign had nothing to do with it. Still, she said she had no problem with drawing such stark distinctions.

"Well, you know, people have the right to characterize how they see it," she says. "There are major differences between Mary and I, big philosophical differences. I think people see things based on their own philosophies and their own view of life. I say what I believe, and even if people disagree with my philosophy, I think the voters know I'll work hard to promote Louisiana and Louisiana values."

THE RNC'S PUSH to get Christian conservatives to the polls is just one part of a broad push to cap the successful midterm elections with a win in Louisiana. A pickup there would give them a 52-48 majority in the new Senate and discourage any repeats of the 2001 Jim Jeffords defection. The National Republican Senatorial Committee has several staff members in Louisiana to support the Terrell campaign, which forced the runoff with only five full-time staff members, two of them political neophytes. The effort by national Republicans--which already includes visits by President Bush and Vice President Cheney--will intensify during the last week of the campaign.

On Monday, December 2, former President Bush will make an appearance in Monroe. On that same day, Elizabeth Dole will stump for Terrell in Shreveport. On Tuesday, the president will headline events in Shreveport and New Orleans (he won Louisiana by 8 percentage points in 2000). Terrell will kickoff a final, statewide bus tour on Wednesday, with a high-profile Republican senator, followed by appearances by presidential advisers Mary Matalin and Karen Hughes on Thursday. And the party is trying to finalize details for an appearance by Rudy Giuliani on Friday.

The contrast with Landrieu's campaign couldn't be greater. Louisiana Democrats are unlikely to see any national Democrats in the state before Election Day. Not Tom Daschle. Not Hillary Clinton. And not Al Gore. Former President Bill Clinton recorded some phone messages aimed at black voters, but the Landrieu campaign has not been warm to the idea of appearing with him. Despite the fact that Landrieu's "victory hopes," according to the New Orleans Times-Picayune, "hinge on being able to energize black voters," Landrieu has also shunned Jesse Jackson. On November 23, Jackson attended a birthday party/fundraiser for Cleo Fields, a powerful former New Orleans congressman who only recently (and reluctantly) endorsed Landrieu. When Jackson offered his support to Landrieu, her campaign took pains to distance itself from him. According to the same Times-Picayune report, "the Landrieu camp said it had nothing to do with Jackson's appearance in Baton Rouge or his endorsement."

If national Democrats aren't publicly rushing to Landrieu's side, staffers from the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee are working feverishly behind the scenes for her campaign. That has Louisiana Republicans nervous. They're bracing for what they expect to be a harsh, last-minute effort to scare blacks into voting. Rumors were flying last week throughout the Louisiana political community about the specifics of the coming nastiness. And while there was little consensus about the precise nature of the attack, there was widespread agreement that it was coming.

Republicans have taken extra precautions to safeguard election processes for the December 7 vote. Landrieu won her seat in 1996 by a 6,000 votes out of 1.7 million cast. Her opponent, Woody Jenkins, challenged the result by going to the Senate Rules Committee. After lengthy hearings on the matter, and despite finding "isolated instances" of voter fraud, the Senate concluded Landrieu's campaign had nothing to do with the electoral high jinks and seated her. But Republicans still feel slighted and vow they will be more vigilant this year. "We have extra ballot integrity programs to make sure there's no fraud," says state representative Steve Scalise, who sits on a legislative committee with oversight of elections. "With Woody's race, it wasn't that we needed more laws. It's that we didn't enforce the ones we had."

To that end, Republicans have beefed up their teams of poll-watchers--volunteers who actually sit at the precincts to monitor the process. And Scalise says the party will have a team of lawyers on standby, so that if any of the poll-watchers sees something suspicious, the problem can be addressed immediately. But with increased GOP monitoring often come Democratic cries of "voter intimidation." Says Scalise: "You can predict that at 3 P.M. on Election Day, there are going to be all of these ridiculous cries of intimidation."

Stephen F. Hayes is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.