Presidential Pull

by Jeremy Alford

Hurricane politics and an earlier primary system make Louisiana an important step on the road to the White House.

For only $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. The Arizona native is one of the favored Republican frontrunners for the November 2008 presidential election, and McCain and other White House hopefuls are already eyeing 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 ' as well as displaced citizens ' are keeping tabs. A promise from the executive branch to south Louisiana today is also a promise to Texas, Georgia, Illinois and all the states that have taken in evacuees and are being asked to help fund the rebuilding of Louisiana.

Dr. Pearson Cross, a professor of political science at UL Lafayette, says the upcoming national campaign season will be somewhat predictable outside state lines. Candidates will make the same speech in every town, and only certain 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."

And a good share of those stops will likely be in Louisiana. During the spring regular session, lawmakers voted to move the state's presidential primary up on the calendar, a switch that is expected to lead to more attention from the candidates and increased revenues from political business. The decision also comes at an opportune moment ' for the first time in more than 50 years, there is no heir apparent running for the office, as both President George Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney will be stepping down. The contest for the 44th presidency is wide open.

That's one of the 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. He was behind an effort that will change the 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 the state Republican and Democratic parties also lobbied for the bill during the spring session, touting it as an economic benefit for everyone from consultants to newspapers. But the real beauty of the changeover is it gives Louisiana more prominence in the national primary system, placing it ahead of voter-rich states like California, New York, Texas and Florida in picking the next president.

By the time Louisiana cast its votes under the old system, the primary contest was already decided and there was no reason for White House hopefuls to stop in the state and stump for votes. It was also a rarity to hear a presidential candidate address specific Louisiana issues in New Hampshire, which is among the states that traditionally hold a January primary. "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.

With the continued rebuilding of south Louisiana, the early primary will also motivate presidential candidates to visit the devastated areas that will be asking for money for years to come, he says. The trips could also open up new lines of communication and help demonstrate the needs of the state.

How much Louisiana's influence in this process is bolstered due to the decision remains largely unknown. Alabama recently moved into the February fray as well and other states are pondering the switch, which could lead to a watering-down of the strategy. But McCain's early and continued interest in an area of the country where President Bush did so well is an indication that Louisiana should receive serious face time with the major players in 2008.

Cross says the circumstances are unprecedented for the state and that candidates will be expected to address the insurance crisis, trailer parks, levee systems, "Rita amnesia," coastal restoration and all the crucial issues of the historic rebuilding process. Continued national media interest in this process will only heighten the drama, and the earlier primary will serve as a catalyst. Combined, they will give Louisiana a presidential campaign season like never before.

"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."