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Stalking Mary Landrieu 

The GOP is stalking Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu again, but time is running short -- and so is the field of Republicans willing and able to challenge her.

Landrieu had been in the GOP's cross hairs early on, but her voting record of late -- particularly her votes for President Bush's tax cuts and for his plan to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge -- hardly makes her the "liberal" that right-wingers would like to call her on the campaign trail. That won't stop them, of course, as truth rarely gets in the way of campaign rhetoric.

But truth does matter at some levels, and there are some undeniable truths that weigh in Landrieu's favor right now.

First, she has worked hard to win over conservatives and business folks back home, many of whom are Republicans. They would love to see the Senate become Republican, but closer to home they remember those who have helped them. And some of them, like Jefferson developer Henry Shane and Jefferson Parish President Tim Coulon, are actually helping Landrieu raise money and garner GOP support.

In addition, polls show Landrieu comfortably ahead of all announced challengers. As much as the GOP wants the Senate back, it doesn't want to waste time, energy and resources waging a war it cannot win.

On the other hand, Louisiana's unique "open primary" system could make Landrieu a target once again -- if the GOP can assemble the right cast of challengers.

Landrieu and all her opponents, regardless of party, run in November -- at a time when all the other states are electing their senators and congressmen in general elections. If Landrieu does not win a majority of the vote in November's primary, she will face the other top vote-getter in a December runoff. Hers will then be the only U.S. Senate race in the country -- and probably the only race on the ballot in Louisiana.

If the Senate majority hangs in the balance, Landrieu's re-election will suddenly become a national campaign. That, say GOP stalwarts, changes everything.

So, can the GOP get Landrieu into a runoff?

For the past decade or more, the Louisiana Republican party has been balkanized by factional disputes. The in-fighting has been ugly, and it has cost the party dearly.

This time, factionalism may work in the party's favor. If several candidates who tap into the GOP's warring constituencies challenge Landrieu in tandem, they might just get the senator into that December runoff. So far, there's only Congressman John Cooksey of Monroe, whose appeal is limited to hard-line conservatives. State Rep. Tony Perkins of Baton Rouge, who managed Woody Jenkins' losing effort against Landrieu six years ago, is talking like a candidate. Perkins taps the Religious Right, another key GOP constituency.

But they still need a moderate to complete the puzzle.

Their best shot is Elections Commissioner Suzanne Haik-Terrell. As a female from New Orleans, Terrell could cut into Landrieu's base considerably. But she has been coy as to her intentions -- despite being courted by national party leaders.

Moreover, in light of Congressman David Vitter's surprise announcement that he will not run for governor next year, Terrell may have more interest in running for governor. In fact, she may be the GOP's best prospect for that campaign as well.

In addition, Terrell won her present job by beating Jenkins -- with help from a lot of Landrieu allies in the Democratic ranks. If she challenges Landrieu and loses, her star may be tarnished too much to come back a year later in a race for governor.

Without Terrell or someone like her in the hunt, the GOP's effort to take down Landrieu will be doomed from the start. That puts the elections commissioner in the catbird seat -- and on the hot seat.

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