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Up in the Air 

The race to succeed Bobby Jindal in Congress has barely begun and already there has been a major development " St. Tammany Parish President Kevin Davis has decided not to run. Davis easily would have been the front-running Northshore candidate in a race that is expected to become a showdown among leading Republican candidates on opposite sides of Lake Pontchartrain.

Louisiana's First Congressional District includes all or parts of six parishes " lakefront precincts in Orleans, most of the East Bank of Jefferson, a portion of St. Charles, and all of St. Tammany, Washington and Tangipahoa parishes. The conservative district tends to vote Republican in national elections, even though the GOP claims less than 38 percent of the registered voters. Democrats have almost 39 percent, and independents comprise more than 24 percent of the vote.

The Northshore has 54 percent of the GOP vote and almost 57 percent of the total vote, which has fueled talk on that side of the lake about uniting behind a consensus candidate. Davis, had he chosen to run, was expected to be that consensus choice; now it's up for grabs.

For the first time since 1977, Louisiana candidates for Congress will run in separate party primaries, which have been scheduled for March 8, with party runoffs on April 5 and the general election on May 3. Qualifying will be Jan. 29-31.

The GOP primary will be restricted to registered Republicans only. The Democratic primary will be open to registered Democrats and independents. So far, only one Democrat has announced an intention to run " UNO instructor Gilda Reed. Despite their plurality of registered voters, Democrats are not expected to be much of a factor in the staunchly conservative district.

Davis' exit leaves no announced Northshore candidate with a parish-wide political base. The Republican candidates as of last week included Slidell Mayor Ben Morris, Mandeville state Rep. Tim Burns, Metairie state Sen. Steve Scalise, at-large Jefferson Parish Councilman John Young, and former Gov. Dave Treen. Of them, Young clearly has the largest geographic base as a parish-wide elected official in Jefferson. Scalise, however, has locked up most of the GOP establishment money and support, probably as a result of his willingness to stand down three years ago when Jindal moved to the district to run. Treen, 79, will have to face questions about his age " as he did nine years ago when he lost a bid for this job to David Vitter. He has not held political office since 1984.

On its face, it might appear that the March 8 GOP primary will be two mini-primaries between Morris, Burns and Treen on the Northshore, and Young and Scalise on the South Shore. Things are rarely that simple, though. Scalise's national money, and his support from former Congressman Bob Livingston, will give him a presence throughout the district. Young's good friend, state Sen. Julie Quinn, represents a district that includes portions of Tangipahoa and St. Tammany, and she comes from an old Northshore family. Having just won her own re-election handily, Quinn will be an asset to Young there.

The trickier parlay will be Morris and Burns' efforts to garner South Shore support against two popular Jefferson politicians. Morris, as a former police chief, will certainly have credibility on the all-important issue of crime, and his outspokenness (he once referred to the ACLU as 'the American Taliban") should serve him well among conservatives everywhere. Burns is the least known candidate with the smallest geographic base; he faces an uphill fight on all fronts.

Another interesting dynamic will be one that could be related to the reasons Davis chose not to run. He cited his commitment to serve the voters of St. Tammany as their parish president; they just re-elected him with more than 80 percent of the vote. Each remaining candidate is similarly popular in his own district, and thus voters in Jefferson, Slidell and Mandeville will have to ask themselves if they really want to lose their favorite son as a state senator, councilman, mayor or state representative. It's impossible to quantify that sentiment right now, but the truth is each GOP candidate will cost his political base something if he wins.

Davis says he won't make an endorsement 'for now." Interestingly, shortly before he announced he would not run for Congress, Davis signed a letter endorsing Democratic U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, along with several other GOP local officials and 21 Democrats.

While much about this district appears to be predictable, much more remains up in the air.

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