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Mary's war

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It was fun for a while to imagine Bobby Jindal running against U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu. Probably no one enjoyed the speculation more than Landrieu. The governor, who is a wounded but not-yet-lame duck, would have been a perfect opponent for Louisiana's senior senator had he opted to run, but he's not that dumb.

  Anything can happen in an election, of course, but Landrieu probably would have beat him like a drum — not because she's invincible (no one is), but because Jindal is so unpopular. National political prognosticators have been saying for months that Landrieu is the Senate's most vulnerable Democrat, but they say that every time she runs. And every time she has run for the U.S. Senate, she has won by a larger margin than ever.

  Jindal, on the other hand, has voter approval ratings that not even a mother could love. Moreover, the same Southern Media and Opinion Research (SMOR) polls that show Jindal's job ratings nose-diving into the mid-30s also show Landrieu's numbers in the mid-50s. Landrieu's score may not be stratospheric, but she never scored higher than the low-60s anyway — and her numbers are way better than Jindal's.

  The governor's emphatic statement last week that he will not run for the Senate next year hit the reset button for Louisiana's GOP in its quest to unseat Landrieu. It also underscores the nagging problem that the party has when it comes to fielding candidates against her. In some ways, the state Republican party has become a victim of its own success.

  Back when the GOP was a fraction of its current size in Louisiana, it was easy for the party to unite behind a single candidate in any election. In the last three decades, the party has grown from around 3 percent of the state's electorate to almost 28 percent. With size comes diversity, at least philosophically, and that has meant growing pains for the GOP. In contrast to the party of the 1970s and '80s, today's Louisiana GOP has several distinct factions, all of them vocal, organized and committed.

  As the party undertakes the task of taking out Landrieu, its de facto leader, U.S. Sen. David Vitter, is lining up support behind U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy of Baton Rouge. Like Vitter or not, he's a brilliant political strategist, and when he sets his mind to something he doesn't sleep.

  Although I've never met Cassidy, I think he's the most dangerous Republican out there for Landrieu. He's a physician with a record of public and charitable service, a good campaigner and a solid conservative but not a right wing nutcase. He could challenge Landrieu among moderate voters, who will decide next year's Senate race — and whom Landrieu has carried by increasing margins in her recent campaigns.

  But therein lies Cassidy's problem. The hard-right wing of the state GOP doesn't care for him because he's not conservative enough. That's what got retired Air Force Col. Rob Maness of Madisonville into the race — and got Maness support from local and national conservative groups.

  If Cassidy, Maness and possibly others have to compete for conservative votes in what amounts to a GOP primary (within the open primary) — while Landrieu has moderates and Democrats all to herself — it could play right into her hands.

  Another problem for the GOP is the fact that Landrieu's opponents have always underestimated her. They look at her record and the "D" behind her name and assume she'll be easy to beat. Truth is, Landrieu is a very good campaigner — as tireless as Vitter, in fact.

  And the longer she stays in the Senate, the more important Landrieu becomes to Louisiana's interests. Thanks to some announced retirements, Landrieu will chair the Senate's Energy and Natural Resources Committee if she wins re-election next year. That's a powerful campaign message — and an easy sell to moderates and oil patch voters. She already has lined up support from some leading GOP donors, in fact.

  That's not to say Landrieu is a shoo-in. Far from it. Every time she runs, it's a war. She's better armed than ever, but she can't take anything for granted.

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