Landrieu Can't Settle On Message In Senate Runoff

BATON ROUGE (AP) — Seniority and clout. The Keystone XL pipeline. Her opponent's timesheets. And a slap at national Democrats who abandoned her bid for reelection.

         Trying to gain traction with Louisiana's voters ahead of Saturday's runoff election, Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu has hopscotched through messages and blame for what's now her underdog status. Rep. Bill Cassidy, Landrieu's Republican opponent, meanwhile, appears set for success on Saturday by hammering Landrieu on just one theme: her ties to President Barack Obama.

         "It's been very difficult because (Republicans) have been successful in a number of states by saying, 'Obama’s bad, therefore vote against your own senator.' And that's what they've said here," said Democratic former Louisiana Sen. John Breaux. "That shouldn't be the issue in the race. It should be whether or not Mary's done a good job for the state. I think she's done incredible things for the state."

         But Landrieu has not stuck solely to that idea, throwing an assortment of messages at Louisiana voters as she tries to hang onto the last statewide Democratic-held seat in the Deep South. Sens. Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Kay Hagan of North Carolina went down in defeat Nov. 4 after being pummeled by similar Republican-driven, anti-Obama strategies.

         Those seats and the majority lost, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee refused to help Landrieu in the runoff. In all, 97 cents of every dollar spent by outside groups since Nov. 5 has paid to help Cassidy. Landrieu described herself as "extremely disappointed."

         "This is a fight worth fighting," Landrieu said after a rally on Tuesday. "I have a very good record. Records should matter."

         Landrieu's campaign initially was founded on her 18 years of seniority in the Senate, particularly the clout she had won with her chairmanship of the Senate Energy Committee, a post that is vital to Louisiana's oil and gas interests.

         But a wave of GOP wins last month upended the argument, securing the Senate for Republicans and assuring Landrieu would lose the chairmanship. Follow-up attempts to focus on her committee seat as a selling point were undermined by the announcement that incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had promised Cassidy an energy committee spot.

         Landrieu responded with a renewed push for the long-delayed Keystone XL pipeline. But while she was successful in getting a Senate floor vote for the controversial project, Democrats — still in the majority until the new Congress is seated next year — allowed the measure to fall one vote short of passage. The failure undermined Landrieu's claims that her clout is strong enough to influence colleagues and break partisan gridlock. And the effort gave Cassidy the ability to slap his name on a Keystone bill in the House and win passage there.

         Since the runoff campaign began, the embattled Democrat has turned to frequent attacks against her Republican challenger, trying to link him to GOP Gov. Bobby Jindal, who is unpopular in Louisiana, and questioning his fitness for office.

         Recently, Landrieu directed her most pointed criticism at Cassidy's medical teaching job with the LSU hospital system, calling him "Dr. Double Dip." At each campaign stop and in a new TV ad, Landrieu suggests Cassidy collected a $20,000, taxpayer-funded salary for little or no work, citing gaps and discrepancies in the Baton Rouge congressman's LSU timesheets. LSU said it's looking into the timesheet questions.

         Cassidy has denied he did anything improper, saying he's continued to care for poor and uninsured patients and work with medical students since being elected to Congress. He's described Landrieu's attacks as a desperate attempt to revive a failing campaign.

         Since Landrieu launched her timesheet criticism, Cassidy's been laying low. He skipped public events all week, except a debate on Monday and his return to Louisiana on Friday for two rallies with Iowa Sen.-elect Joni Ernst. Cassidy's campaign said the congressman was in Washington for votes in the lame-duck session, while Landrieu, who's been on the campaign trail all week, accused him of hiding.

         It was yet another indication of Cassidy's confidence in a victory and his focus on a campaign played out through scripted TV ads. Meanwhile, Landrieu's advertising — like her constantly-shifting talking points — is a mishmash of topics.

         While she's distanced herself from Obama in most appearances, Landrieu's running ads on radio stations that cater to black listeners saying Republicans have disrespected the president and urging people to vote for Landrieu "so she can help our president continue to do the great job he is doing."

         A different radio spot from her campaign suggests the Senate race isn't about the president at all, but should be about Landrieu's record and her seniority: "We're not voting for Obama. We're voting for us and our future," a woman says to her husband.

         – by AP Reporter Melinda Deslatte

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