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Forecast: Close Elections 

Cajuns are conservative folk, but they are among the most flexible white voters in the country.

The most recent statewide survey proves once again why Louisiana is "in play" for the November presidential election -- and why our wide-open U.S. Senate race could be another cliffhanger.

In a nutshell, the poll confirms that Acadiana will likely be the swing vote in those elections. So does history.

The survey was conducted by Southern Media and Opinion Research (SMOR) of Baton Rouge, which interviewed 700 voters statewide in mid-March. This far ahead of the election, survey results that are five weeks old are still considered fresh. That won't be the case after Labor Day. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.8 percent. More important, SMOR has a long record of accurate polling.

Here are the results statewide:

In the presidential election, President Bush leads with 51.5 percent, followed by Democratic Sen. John Kerry with 37.6 percent and Ralph Nader with 1.7 percent. Another 9.2 percent offered no preference.

In the Senate race, Republican Congressman David Vitter of Metairie led the field with 30.0 percent, followed by Democratic Congressman Chris John of Lafayette with 19.0 percent, Democratic state Treasurer John Kennedy with 14.1 percent and Democratic state Rep. Arthur Morrell with 3.3 percent. The remaining 33.6 percent -- more than any candidate's share -- stated no preference. Morrell is the only African American in the race, and Vitter so far is the only Republican.

Those numbers mean a lot more, and Acadiana's role as the swing vote becomes clearer when you look at the geographic breakdowns.

In the presidential race, Bush leads Kerry in all four major geographic areas used by SMOR to analyze the vote. However, the race is closest in the New Orleans area and in Acadiana. Here are the regional percentages for Bush and Kerry:

New Orleans area -- Bush 48.1, Kerry 40.5

Florida/River parishes -- Bush 55.0, Kerry 36.2

Acadiana -- Bush 48.1, Kerry 39.3

North Louisiana -- Bush 57.4, Kerry 33.1.

The vote in the New Orleans area will very likely be much closer, because in the SMOR survey nearly 20 percent of African-American voters were undecided -- and another 10 percent supported Bush. It's possible that Bush will hold onto a substantial black vote, but it's unlikely he'll get 10 percent or more in Louisiana. That means Kerry's vote is understated in the New Orleans area, and the race will be much tighter here on Election Day.

As for Acadiana, it will be interesting to see how the economy affects the election. Cajuns are conservative folk, but they are among the most flexible white voters in the country in that they can just as easily vote Democratic as Republican, depending on the candidates and the circumstances. Talk of cheap Mexican sugar flooding the American markets helped tip the state toward Democrat Mary Landrieu in the last U.S. Senate race, even though Bush made a personal appearance and a plea for Republican Suzanne Haik-Terrell. This time, Bush himself will be on the ballot.

The president is certainly favored to carry Louisiana, but he's not a lock. It's possible he could win Louisiana in November and then see a Democrat win the Senate runoff on December 4. The survey's regional percentages show why. They are:

New Orleans area -- John 4.8, Kennedy 11.9, Morrell 5.9, Vitter 51.7

Florida/River parishes -- John 4.7, Kennedy 23.6, Morrell 2.9, Vitter 36.6

Acadiana -- John 46.8, Kennedy 9.0, Morrell 1.6, Vitter 12.6

North Louisiana -- John 7.5, Kennedy 16.4, Morrell 3.1, Vitter 24.6

As the only Republican, Vitter brings a certain clarity to his campaign. Plus, he's a tireless campaigner with a knack for garnering free publicity. It's no surprise that he leads in his home area of metro New Orleans, but it's interesting that he beats Kennedy (and all others) in the Florida/River parishes region, which includes Kennedy's home of Baton Rouge. Then again, Vitter's congressional district includes the populous Northshore parishes of St. Tammany, Washington and Tangipahoa. Elsewhere, John clobbers everyone in his native Acadiana, where he likely will wind up having the support of Gov. Kathleen Blanco and Sen. John Breaux, two popular Cajuns. Don't underestimate the potential impact of those endorsements. The Senate race will probably go down to the wire in December. Again.


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