NEW ORLEANS, Dec. 6 (UPI) -- On the eve of a critical runoff that will determine which party claims the final seat in the U.S. Senate, political analysts in Louisiana term the race a statistical dead heat.
The latest poll, conducted this week for Gannett Newspapers by Mason-Dixon Polling and Research of Columbia, Md., found the incumbent, Democrat Sen. Mary Landrieu, leading her Republican challenger, Suzanne Haik Terrell, 47-45 percent. A sample of 625 registered voters was surveyed Monday and Tuesday.
Landrieu and Terrell continued to stump the state in the hours remaining before Saturday's election, with each scheduled to hit at least seven cities across the state Friday.
Meanwhile, local television and radio stations continued to carry political ads that lived up to Louisiana's reputation for down-and-dirty elections.
A Terrell radio ad, for example, features a Bill Clinton sound-alike who chides that "Mary Landrieu is so liberal, she might be closer to Hillary than I am." It's an attempt to paint Landrieu with the same brush as the former president's spouse, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., who is seen by many as one of the most left-leaning members of Congress.
Terrell has had ample help in portraying herself as the political opposite of Landrieu, with support coming from the nation's highest-ranking Republicans. In the past week alone, President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney made separate visits to the state in her behalf.
But Landrieu, who won her senate seat in 1996, said the parade of political bigwigs confirms Terrell will be a "rubber stamp" for the Republican Party. She accuses Terrell of distorting Landrieu's pro-choice stance on abortion and even questioning the incumbent's commitment to her religious faith. Both candidates are Roman Catholic.
Terrell, a newcomer to national elections with the offices of state election commissioner and New Orleans City Council under her belt, has come a long way since garnering 27 percent of the vote to Landrieu's 46 percent in the state's Nov. 5 open primary. A runoff was forced when Landrieu failed to win more than 50 percent of the vote over her five challengers.
Most of Landrieu's political support has come from fellow Sen. John Breaux, a Louisiana Democrat with national standing who has remained at the candidate's side through much of her campaign.
In the past 10 days, Landrieu has seized on the issue of Mexican sugar imports and their impact on Louisiana farmers. She accuses Terrell of quietly supporting the White House in a "secret deal" with Mexico to double U.S. purchases of sugar. Terrell claims the administration has told her no such deal exists.
That a U.S. Senate race in Louisiana has come down to a bitter battle between two women from New Orleans, both of whom emphasize their commitment to "family values," says much about the evolution of politics in this state, according to Louisiana political analyst and author John Maginnis.
Noting that Democrats in Louisiana frequently have won elections through massive get-out-the-vote efforts in the African-American community, Maginnis said the effort is no sure bet this time.
"Landrieu's hopes lie with black voters turning out in far greater numbers than in the primary, when 40 percent of blacks voted compared to 48 percent of whites," he said.
"I think this shows a further strengthening of the white, conservative vote in Louisiana, maybe lessening influence from so-called yellow dog Democrats, and, maybe, a weakening of the black vote."
The Senate race is not the only Louisiana runoff being watched across the nation.
In the northern part of the state, a Republican is leading the race for the 5th Congressional District seat, another race marked by negative campaigning. Republican Lee Fletcher is leading Democrat Rodney Alexander 48-40 percent, according to a Mason-Dixon poll this week.
In the November primary, Alexander snagged 29 percent of the vote to Fletcher's 26 percent in the race for the seat vacated by Republican Rep. John Cooksey, who resigned to make an ill-fated run for the Senate against Landrieu.