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How Will Nagin Play His Hand? 

Mayor Ray Nagin faces his first big political test in the Oct. 5 primaries. The elections present an opportunity for him to flex his muscles, to galvanize the coalition that put him into office, and to show that his own election was no fluke.

By traditional standards, Nagin appears to be forfeiting much of the game by staying out of certain elections. Then again, Nagin always said he did not plan to be a traditional mayor.

Most mayors enter their first political season anxious to show their mettle and win the respect of doubters, even if such respect comes grudgingly. Typically, a new mayor will marshal his troops and attempt to deliver votes to his chosen candidates. If he succeeds, he is the undisputed king of the mountain -- until the next election.

Nagin sees his politics differently.

For starters, he has no political machine or organization behind him, and he doesn't seem to want one. He likewise has no plans to put his unclassified workers to the task of canvassing.

Overall, he seems less concerned with winning the respect of other politicos than with maintaining the respect of voters. So far, polls show that he's meeting that goal handily. Even though the nascent investigations into City Hall corruption have receded from the front page, Nagin's popularity among voters remains sky high as a result of the initial arrests.

That makes his endorsement worth a lot, with or without an organization to go with it.

Given the fact that the voters who elected Nagin are the city's middle and upper-middle classes -- black and white -- he probably doesn't need a political organization to make his point. In fact, the lack of a "Nagin group" is his point. His independence is precisely what many voters love about him. And, the typical Nagin voter is also among those most likely to vote -- another reason he doesn't need an organization.

All he has to do is announce his choice, and voters will take it from there.

Well, maybe.

The truth is, no one knows what the impact of Nagin's endorsements will be, or even if he will endorse beyond the few races in which he has already announced his favorites. So far, he supports Mary Landrieu for U.S. Senate, Desiree Charbonnet for recorder of mortgages and Lambert Boissiere III for constable of First City Court. Sources say he plans to endorse in the elections for district attorney and Congress, but time's running short in the DA's race. The federal primary is not until Nov. 5, so he's got plenty of time to think about Bill Jefferson. The same sources say he will steer clear of the judicial contests.

This much is certain: in races in which Nagin does not endorse, the traditional organizations and political players will have their way.

If Nagin hopes to make a difference in the DA's race, he'll have to make his wishes known this week. He's been getting plenty of advice -- and meeting with candidates -- but so far his cards are tucked well inside his vest.

In addition to deciding whom to endorse, he'll have to decide what role to play. Should he go on TV and radio? Help with fundraising? Make personal appearances on the campaign trail? Or just call a news conference and leave it at that?

Ultimately, what Nagin does may be secondary to how he does it. If he wants to play his strongest hand, he'll go on TV and make lots of personal appearances for his candidate. Nagin's personal appeal is what got him noticed -- and elected -- in the mayor's race.

If he does get personally behind a candidate for DA and that candidate wins, Nagin could become even more fearsome than any of his predecessors and all of their organizations combined.

But time is running short.


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