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Race for Louisiana Governor Too Close to Call - 2003-11-13

In the southern U.S. state of Louisiana, the two candidates for governor squared off in a final televised debate Wednesday. Public opinion polls show the race too close to call ahead of Saturday's voting. The election will be of historic importance, no matter who wins. One candidate is the son of immigrants from India and would be the first non-white governor since the Reconstruction period following the Civil War. The other candidate would be the first woman ever to hold that office in Louisiana or anywhere else in the southern United States.

Here in New Orleans, there were few sparks in the final debate of the Louisiana gubernatorial campaign. The two candidates were cordial, even friendly with each other and they had few disagreements on major issues.

Lieutenant Governor Kathleen Blanco, the Democratic candidate, stressed the advance her election would make for women. "I am not asking you to vote for me just because I am a woman. I do not think that would be a fair request," she says. "I am here because I have earned my way. I have served you to the best of my ability and in each and every job I have done better than what was there before me."

The Republican candidate, Bobby Jindal, a former Assistant secretary of Health and Human Services in the Bush administration, emphasized the need for a more dynamic, business-like governor. "Elect a problem solver, not a career politician," he says. "I am here to ask for your vote because I know, working together, we can cut those taxes and cut those paperwork requirements, start adding value to the products that are made in Louisiana so that our kids do not have to go elsewhere to use their talents."

The main contrasts between the two candidates, other than gender, are found in age and skin color. Mrs. Blanco is 60 years old and Mr. Jindal is 32 years old. Mrs. Blanco -- whose maiden name is Babineaux -- is descended from Louisiana's Cajuns, people of French ancestry who were forced to flee their homes in Canada after the British took over in the middle of the 18th Century. Mr. Jindal's parents were immigrants from India and his dark complexion has become a factor in this contest.

Although he is a conservative Republican and most blacks in this state are Democrats, Mr. Jindal has attracted support from many blacks, including the mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin. "Now, Bobby Jindal and I do not agree on everything, but there is no doubt he is the candidate who can bring better jobs and move Louisiana ahead," says Mr. Nagin. "This year it cannot matter whether we are Democrats or Republicans. We have to do what is right for Louisiana."

This endorsement drew fire from many traditional Black Democrats and upset the usual pattern of state politics. Kathleen Blanco has held a strong lead in communities that are strongly Democrat, but her chances of winning will depend greatly on voter turnout.

Political analysts say that if Mr. Jindal can attract even a small percentage of black votes, while keeping a grip on the deeply conservative areas of the state, he will win Saturday's election. The rise of Bobby Jindal has surprised many political observers, who recall that Louisiana voters came close to electing former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke as governor, 12 years ago. However, whatever racial prejudice may still exist in the state is not stopping many white conservatives from supporting Mr. Jindal.

This election has been different from past elections, especially in terms of the quality of the candidates and the relative civility of their campaigns.

Louisiana political columnist John Maginnis -- in an essay published Wednesday in the "New Orleans Times Picayune" says this race is attracting voters because there is -- in his words -- " . . . the opportunity to choose between the better of two candidates instead of the usual lesser of two evils."

Officials expect a large turnout for Saturday's polling.