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Louisiana Votes in Run-off Senate Election - 2002-12-07

Voters in the U.S. state of Louisiana go to the polls Saturday in a run-off election for a Senate seat held by incumbent Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu. President Bush, hoping to increase his party's slim majority in the Senate, has campaigned for the Republican challenger. Polls show the race too close to call.

The Louisiana race is the only run-off for a Senate seat in the country.

Senator Landrieu, who is seeking a second term, was forced into the run-off by failing to win a majority of the vote on November fifth in the state's unique open primary. She won 46 percent of the vote.

Her challenger, Suzanne Haik Terrell, the state elections' commissioner, came in second among three Republican candidates in last month's balloting, with 27 percent of the vote.

Just weeks ago it appeared that Senator Landrieu would be easily reelected.

But the race has tightened, thanks in large part to President Bush, who is very popular among the state's many conservative voters and who has campaigned on behalf of Ms. Terrell.

"You owe it to Louisiana to vote for Suzie Terrell for the United States Senate," he said.

President Bush is eager to bolster his party's narrow majority in the Senate to make it easier to win passage of his legislative priorities. Republicans now hold 51 of the Senate's 100 seats. The Democrats hold 47. One seat is held by an independent.

For Senator Landrieu, the race highlights the same dilemma that other Democrats faced in the November election: how to offer support for a popular Republican president waging a war against terrorism while not alienating core Democratic supporters.

She has sought to walk a fine line, often voting for Mr. Bush's initiatives, but reassuring her political base that she is not a so-called 'rubber stamp.'

"The president's policies are not all right for Louisiana all the time," she said. "They need a senator that can represent this state."

Still, some Democrats including black voters, who make up one-third of the state's electorate, complain that Ms. Landrieu is ignoring them.

"A Democratic candidate cannot blame African American voters for not being excited when they vote like, sound like, and even campaign like Republicans," said State Senator Cleo Fields,an African-American.

Ms. Terrell, meanwhile, hoping to become the state's first Republican Senator in more than a century, emphasizes her desire to support Mr. Bush.

"I know you want a senator who will bend your ear about what is important to Louisiana, and you know I will," Ms. Terrell said. "But I will also stand with you to move our country forward. I will not be a roadblock to your leadership."

Observers say Ms. Terrell has the political momentum going into the run-off. But the race ultimately may be decided by voter turnout.