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Another Cliffhanger for Mary 

=It didn't take state Treasurer John Kennedy long to deliberate on the question of whether to run against U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu next fall. Actually, the only real decision for Kennedy was when to announce, not whether to run.

The state's newest Republican statewide official (he switched parties shortly before qualifying for re-election in September), Kennedy has long been considered one of the GOP's best hopes for taking on Landrieu. Another possible Republican candidate is Secretary of State Jay Dardenne, who is still officially considering his options " and recovering from a serious auto accident in August.

The fact that the Republicans' best candidate against Landrieu was until very recently a Democrat, speaks volumes about the party's lack of depth in terms of viable statewide candidates. Then again, Democrats couldn't field a strong contender for governor against Bobby Jindal, so maybe it says just as much about Landrieu's strength as a two-term senator that no veteran Republicans have stepped up to challenge her.

The race promises to be another cliffhanger, with tons of money dumped into both campaigns from around the country.

Landrieu is the national GOP's No. 1 target in the 2008 Senate elections. She won her first Senate contest in 1996 by 4,200 votes, or 50.2 percent of the vote, against right-wing state Rep. Woody Jenkins. In 2002, she beat then-Elections Commissioner Suzanne Haik-Terrell by 42,000 votes, or a more comfortable 52-48 percent margin. She appeared to be building a reliable statewide base along with her Senate seniority.

Then came Hurricane Katrina.

Landrieu has delivered superbly for Louisiana since the storm, thanks to her seat " and her seniority " on the Senate Appropriations Committee. Congress' recent grant of $3 billion for the Road Home shortfall was due entirely to Landrieu's efforts, and she has been instrumental in funneling other billions since the storm, including future coastal restoration funds from the revised Outer Continental Shelf drilling law. She will not be shy about reminding voters of the importance of keeping her in place.

But, while Katrina gave her the opportunity to deliver, it also displaced almost 100,000 black voters in the New Orleans area " a key element of her Democratic base. To be sure, not all of those displaced black voters have left Louisiana. Many resettled in other communities across the state and will likely continue to vote Democratic. Many also have moved to Houston and beyond, however, and that's going to factor into the equation in a big way.

In making his announcement, Kennedy tied himself to popular new Republican Gov.-elect Bobby Jindal. 'Over the next few months, I will lay the groundwork of support for an aggressive campaign that will focus on a frank discussion of the issues and how I will help move Louisiana forward, working in tandem with our new reform leadership in Baton Rouge," his announcement said.

Kennedy also released the results of a Zogby poll of 1,000 'likely voters" showing him ahead of Landrieu by a margin of 45-38 percent. The poll was taken in the midst of Kennedy's massive statewide media buy in September and October " a buy he made even though he was unopposed for re-election " and in the absence of any campaigning by Landrieu, so its results are no doubt skewed in the challenger's favor. Nonetheless, it portends another tough fight for Landrieu. The poll's main significance is showing Kennedy as a viable candidate to GOP donors nationwide.

As they march toward next fall's election, Kennedy will talk about issues " wrapping himself in his new conservative clothes " and Landrieu will talk about effectiveness and seniority.

While Landrieu remains vulnerable among bedrock conservatives, Kennedy has his own weak spot: in the 2004 Senate race, he was the left-wing Democratic candidate against David Vitter. Rest assured Landrieu's campaign will remind voters of that as well.

Historically, Landrieu's foes have always underestimated her, but Republicans are buoyed by Jindal's victory in the governor's race. As exciting as Jindal's victory is for the GOP, it does not mean the state has 'gone Republican," however. Landrieu won her first Senate race a year after Republican Mike Foster won his first governor's race in a landslide, and she was re-elected in 2002 when President George W. Bush's coattails were at their longest and most effective.

Everything points to a close, white-knuckle contest. In many ways, very little has changed.


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