Presidential Pull

Hurricane politics and an earlier primary system make Louisiana more than a speed bump on the road to the White House.


For a mere $5,000, you and yours can dine next week -- in the VIP section, of course -- with U.S. Sen. John McCain at the Old State Capitol. Not only is McCain portrayed in a made-for-TV movie about a Vietnam prisoner of war, but the Arizona senator also is one of the Republican frontrunners for president.

The presidential election won't be held until November 2008, more than two years away. That timespan represents a lifetime in politics, an eternity even. For McCain and other White House hopefuls, however, it's never too early to campaign for Louisiana's nine Electoral College votes.

Louisiana is in an unprecedented position to woo presidential candidates and demand real promises from them. Katrina and Rita thrust the state onto a national platform, and voters -- those who have returned as well as those who remain displaced -- are keeping tabs. A promise from the executive branch to south Louisiana today is also a promise to northern Illinois.

Dr. Pearson Cross, a professor of political science at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette, says the upcoming national campaign season will be predictable in most communities. Candidates will make the same speech in every town, and only selected issues will be pushed. But when they make a stop in the Bayou State, the status quo will likely be forsaken.

"I think you would be making a major mistake to avoid tailoring a special message to and about Louisiana," Cross says. "There will be voters everywhere waiting to hear about the federal response, and that will continue through a myriad of campaign stops."

A good share of those stops will likely be in Louisiana. During the spring regular legislative session, lawmakers voted to advance the state's presidential primary on the calendar, a switch that is expected to lead to more attention from candidates and possibly more presidential campaign advertising.

The decision also comes at an opportune moment. For the first time in more than 50 years, there is no heir apparent running for president; the entire GOP ticket will be stepping down. The contest for the 44th presidency is, therefore, wide open.

That's one of many reasons Mike Bayham, a former St. Bernard Parish councilman and current member of the Republican State Central Committee, felt it was time to take Louisiana from 32nd to 16th on the national caucus-primary calendar. Bayham promoted the legislation that changed Louisiana's presidential primary, beginning in 2008, from the second Tuesday in March to the second or third Saturday in February, depending on the date of Mardi Gras.

The chairmen from both parties supported the bill, touting it as an economic benefit for everyone from newspapers to consultants. But the real beauty of the change is that it gives Louisiana more prominence in the national primary system, Bayham says, placing it ahead of voter-rich states like California, New York, Texas and Florida in picking the next president.

Under the previous system, by the time Louisiana cast its votes, the nomination in each party was usually decided -- and there was no reason for White House wannabes to stop here or offer assistance. "At best, Louisiana could expect a brief airport hangar rally from a candidate who needed to stop off to refuel his plane between Tampa and Dallas," Bayham says.

As south Louisiana rebuilds, the early primary also will motivate presidential candidates to visit the devastated areas that will be asking for money for years to come, Bayham adds. Such visits could open new lines of communication and showcase Louisiana's needs.

Whether Louisiana's influence in the presidential nomination process increases as a result remains to be seen. Alabama recently moved into the February fray, and other states are pondering similar moves -- all of which could dilute the effectiveness of Louisiana's strategy. Still, McCain's early and continued interest suggests that Louisiana will receive serious face time with the major players in 2008.

Cross says candidates will be expected to address issues such as "Rita Amnesia" -- the feeling in southwest Louisiana that the feds forgot about that part of the state -- and to be well versed in such terms as wind damage, FEMA trailers, levee systems, coastal restoration and other aspects of Louisiana's historical period of rebuilding.

The earlier primary will serve as a catalyst for continued national media interest, which in turn will heighten the political drama, Cross adds. Ultimately, Louisiana should see a presidential campaign season like none other.

"This will be an odd election," Cross says. "No one is beholden to Bush or the Bush administration, so they will have free will to say whatever they want about the hurricanes and the response. They will also be in a position to make big promises to a state that needs them right now."

Jeremy Alford can be reached at

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