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Gloves Off in 2nd District Race 

The gloves are off in the 2nd Congressional District contest between Republican incumbent Anh "Joseph" Cao and Democratic state Rep. Cedric Richmond. The race has several unique attributes that will make it worth watching — locally and nationally.

  For starters, Cao is probably the only GOP congressman in America who is not running against Barack Obama. The president recently taped his first-ever TV ad for a congressional candidate on behalf of Richmond. The district voted 80 percent for Obama two years ago.

  In such a district, the Republican incumbent has to walk a political tightrope between his GOP financiers and his overwhelmingly Democratic constituents. A key part of Cao's strategy is picking up Democratic endorsements; he got several last week.

  Cao needs to get at least 15 percent of the black vote on Nov. 2 to have a shot at winning. Among blacks whose votes he can't get, he needs to create enough doubt about Richmond that some might just not vote at all — as so many did in Cao's upset win against the scandalized Bill Jefferson two years ago.

  That's not an easy strategy to implement. Cao has come under fire, in fact, for going too far in his criticisms of Richmond. His campaign has cited unsubstantiated blog reports that Richmond bought a diamond bezel for a Rolex watch in 2002 with a credit card owned by a nonprofit organization to which the lawmaker steered legislative earmarks. It's true that Richmond bought a Rolex and a diamond bezel, but he bought them in 2007 — several years after the nonprofit was dissolved. He also produced a receipt and a canceled personal check for the watch — and the jeweler backs him up.

  Even so, Cao continued to talk about the blog report as if it were credible, saying people "should look at it and judge on what they believe is right."

  Clearly, Cao has lost his attack virginity. Fighting to remain America's unlikeliest congressman, he has shown that even former Jesuit seminarians can grow fangs and talons. The disclaimer at the end of his TV broadsides against Richmond says much more than the legally required boilerplate: Joseph Cao approved this message.

  It was probably too much to expect anything else. Politics is a full-contact sport. But the odd thing about Cao's tactic is that Richmond has given him ample fodder to attack him cleanly, without having to reach. Richmond was suspended from the practice of law less than two years ago for lying under oath on a campaign qualifying form in 2005, and he was fined by the state Ethics Commission for not reporting in a timely manner the fact he performed legal work for a state agency.

  For his part, Richmond appears to believe polls showing him ahead by double digits. Why else would he cancel a debate last week, a la David Vitter? Richmond cited a scheduling conflict, but that claim rings hollow in light of his earlier commitment to attend the debate, which was to be streamed online by WWL-TV.

  Richmond should not duck future debates. The two men are both quick on their feet, as they proved in a recent forum at Dillard University. Richmond tagged Cao, who had just boasted about his upcoming health fair in the Lower 9, for opposing Obama's final health care plan. "People here don't need health fairs. They need health care," Richmond said. Cao got his licks in later in the same forum when he said Richmond is "slicker than a BP oil spill."

  Now that's more like it.

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