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Barack on the Bayou 

Oprah's candidate has fans pulling resources all over the state, but Obama isn't the only presidential wannabe chasing Louisiana's nine Electoral College votes.

The Democratic and Republican conventions won't take place until late August and early September 2008, respectively, but presidential forces have already hit the ground running in Louisiana. It's a double-duty task for organizers and the state parties, as this year includes elections for statewide and legislative offices, all of which must be coordinated with the fight for the White House raging in the background.

Volunteers are being harvested from Louisiana's colleges as a new semester is rolled out, and fundraisers are being scheduled in most of the state's major metropolitan areas. The state parties are slowly beginning to get instructions from their national counterparts, but don't expect much action until the nominees are chosen next year. For now, help is being offered to all comers.

Most recently, U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, an Illinois Democrat, officially formed an exploratory committee last week. That's a symbolic move that gets one in the race without actually being in the race. It's what pundits used to call "testing the waters." The committee determines a candidate's potential via polling, travel and telephone calls. It technically creates a financial shell for candidates who anticipate spending $5,000 or more just to make a decision.

In the two weeks leading up to Obama's move to create the committee, about 40 Louisiana residents were meeting regularly in an effort to lay out the bare bones of a statewide plan. The gatherings have been held exclusively in New Orleans thus far, but organizer Russell Henderson says satellite groups are being formed in Baton Rouge and Shreveport. The exploratory committee has been in contact, he says, and a fundraiser that was scheduled in the months following Katrina is being rescheduled.

Henderson says a non-caucasian can easily take Louisiana, as evidenced by the 1984 primary victory of the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Jackson garnered 43 percent in a low-turnout affair. "I'm confident Obama can win, too. We're at the beginning, though it's a good beginning," Henderson says. "This time is different. When we did the (2004) Howard Dean campaign, we had a lot of enthusiastic support, but not from elected officials. Now, they're showing up at the meetings, and there's a different response coming from the state party."

Julie Vezinot, communications director for the Louisiana Democratic Party, says local elections are the top priority right now, and the Democratic National Committee (DNC) is just beginning to offer direction for the 2008 presidential contest. "As far as the individual campaigns, they haven't contacted us yet," she says. "We're just following suit with what's coming down from the DNC right now. We're going to offer assistance to all of the Democrats in the race."

Former U.S. Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, another Democrat, received some help from the party in December when he officially announced his candidacy for president while visiting the Ninth Ward. This week, Edwards will hold a fundraiser in Baton Rouge, Vezinot says, and there will likely be further talks about solidifying his Louisiana operations. Meanwhile, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York has been to Louisiana on various occasions to inspect the hurricane damage, but there hasn't been much else from her camp.

On the Republican side, Sen. John McCain of Arizona made the first splash in Louisiana last fall when he went on the airwaves to endorse former state GOP chairman Mike Francis of Crowley in the special election for secretary of state -- an election Francis lost. McCain also has a Louisiana connection in consulting guru Roy Fletcher, who served as McCain's deputy campaign manager for the 2000 presidential campaign. Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas spent the night in Angola in December to push a message of faith-based rehabilitation, and former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts made his rounds recently in the state, holding private meetings and a fundraiser.

Roger Villere, chairman of the Louisiana Republican Party, says his organization has been proactively creating an email list of volunteers and devising a plan on how to use them in the field. How and when delegates will be elected by the state party is another strategic move being pondered, he says. As for assisting candidates, it's the same story as the Democrats. "Our position right now is to be open-minded and helpful to every single candidate," he says. "That is, until the convention."

Both Villere and Vezinot say the recent decision by lawmakers to advance the state's presidential primary on the calendar will lead to more attention from candidates and possibly an increase in campaign advertising. The decision also comes at an opportune moment. For the first time in more than 50 years, there is no heir apparent running for president; the entire GOP ticket will be stepping down. The contest for the 44th presidency is, therefore, wide open.

Beginning next year, Louisiana's primaries will be moved from the second Tuesday in March to the second or third Saturday in February, depending on the date of Mardi Gras. The real beauty of the change is that it gives Louisiana more prominence in the national primary system, placing it ahead of voter-rich states like California, New York, Texas and Florida in picking the next president.

Under the previous system, by the time Louisiana cast its votes, the nomination in each party was usually decided -- and there was no reason for White House wannabes to stop here or offer promises. "By having this early primary, we feel all the candidates will come into the state early and get to know Louisiana," Villere says. "It's important for them to be down here to inspect the hurricane devastation and talk to people about real problems. We're still expecting to get more attention from it."

click to enlarge U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., is testing the waters for a - presidential bid in 2008, and a group of Louisianans is - laying out a statewide plan for his candidacy.
  • U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., is testing the waters for a presidential bid in 2008, and a group of Louisianans is laying out a statewide plan for his candidacy.
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