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Down the Stretch

Do enough people care that Nagin is almost-but-not-quite a CPA after saying that he was?

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Since the Feb. 2 mayoral primary Richard Pennington has been groping, sometimes desperately, for an issue that would slow down Ray Nagin's electoral juggernaut. Last week, Nagin may have handed Pennington that issue on a silver platter.

The question now is, do enough people care that Nagin is almost-but-not-quite a CPA after saying that he was?

The latest poll, which was taken by UNO pollster Dr. Susan Howell and released on Friday, showed Nagin with a runaway 19-point lead going into the final week. In the poll, Nagin had 44 percent to Pennington's 25 percent.

Nagin says the CPA question is a non-issue. He earned a degree in accounting from Tuskegee University and passed the CPA exam in Texas. The only thing he didn't do was satisfy some technical requirements to become "certified" as a public accountant. Instead, he decided to pursue a career in management. On the matter of qualifications, he says, he still has it all over Pennington.

Pennington disagrees. He says this is proof that Nagin cannot be trusted. If he would lie about this, Pennington says, what else might he lie about as mayor?

In a runoff that has focused more on personal attacks (almost all of them from Pennington) than issues, this one comes closest to being a real issue. Personal integrity always matters. And nowadays, resume fraud is taken very seriously.

On the other hand, it's not as if Nagin were, say, a newspaper columnist trying to pass himself off as a CPA. He's at least two-thirds of the way there. Moreover, he passed the toughest phase of the requirements -- earning his accounting degree and passing the rigorous CPA licensing exam.

Another way to look at it is to compare Nagin's misstatement to Paulette Irons' claim that her brother was "murdered on her doorstep." In Irons' case, the exact opposite was true. Her brother tried to shoot cops as he was leaving the scene of a brazen armed robbery that he had just committed.

In Nagin's case, his claim was an exaggeration, but not the exact opposite, of the truth. Licensing requirements often turn on technical details, and Nagin overlooked one of them in calling himself a CPA.

Still, either you are or you aren't. Moreover, as a business executive who regularly evaluates other people's resumes, Nagin should have known better than to fudge, even a little, on his own. At a time when he would otherwise be coasting to an easy victory, he now finds himself more on the defensive than ever.

He may even have ceded momentum to Pennington.

Pennington has to be careful, though. He hasn't fared well on the attack. Remember, he's the guy who promised the day after the primary that he would keep the campaign on a positive course -- but then turned around and launched a series of vicious attacks. He's also the guy who held a bizarre news conference on the steps of City Hall, promising all sorts of bombshells about Nagin and then running away from reporters who wanted details. Pennington's campaign has been so disorganized, in fact, that he actually had to announce last week that he was taking back control. In effect, he was admitting that he had not been "in control" for some time.

If Pennington does indeed have control over his campaign, it comes at a good time for him. He'll need to press Nagin on all corners now that the two men are in the stretch -- and even then, it'll take an upset of Olympic proportions for him to win.

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