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press clipping
May 20, 2006
In New Orleans, Suspense but No Drama as Race Ends

NEW ORLEANS, May 19 — At rallies, in grocery store aisles and at church pulpits, the two candidates for mayor sought last-minute votes on Friday, the day before the election, under a blanket of muggy late-spring heat. But with the city's future on the line, the relaxed rhythms of New Orleans made an odd contrast to the tensions of the race.

Over the last weeks, voters have been treated to a series of tepid debates and halfhearted campaign appearances, which, far from defining the path the battered city should take, have only obscured it.

There are leisurely gaps between campaign events, with the two candidates, Mayor C. Ray Nagin and Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, apparently deciding to forgo traditional stumping. It is also difficult to accomplish, with so many voters still out of town.

Neither of the candidates have publicly confronted the most important issue facing the city: whether damaged neighborhoods, vulnerable to future flooding, can or should be brought back. They acknowledge that their goals are virtually identical, arguing instead over who is more competent to accomplish them.

As a result, voters here appear confused. Some say they still have not made up their minds; others express anger at the pace of change without apparently knowing where such change should lead; and still others doggedly stick with Mr. Nagin, even while acknowledging the battering he has taken from critics who cite his loose rhetoric and erratic management of the recovery.

There is hunger for action, but few could say what it should be.

"Mitch Landrieu, I think he's the better candidate to get things done," said Ashley Hansen, walking her dog in the Uptown section. Though previously a Nagin supporter, she said the mayor had "sort of let me down in some of the things he's said."

There is great suspense over the result, because the large number of evacuees, voting with absentee ballots and at satellite polls, have made surveys unreliable. With more than 12,000 absentee ballots already received and more expected, they may well decide the outcome late Saturday night.

"What people are not understanding are the out-of-town voters, and how significant that could be," Mr. Nagin told reporters outside the Whole Foods market on Magazine Street, where he greeted shoppers.

But the instinct of everyone here — candidates, voters and pundits — is that the contest will be close.

Mr. Nagin, struggling against months of damaging publicity about his handling of the sluggish recovery, constant changes in City Hall policy and uncertainty about the city's financial condition, is seeking a mandate to speak authoritatively for his city against skeptics in Baton Rouge and Washington. Mr. Landrieu, who would become the city's first white mayor in 30 years if he wins, argues that a new voice and a fresh approach are needed to lead the recovery, which has barely begun.

Race, as always, is the city's barely spoken divide. In interviews on Friday, black voters again said they were sticking with Mr. Nagin.

"One thing about that mayor, he stayed here during the hurricane," said Louis Scott, a retired longshoreman near the wharves on Tchoupitoulas Street. "He did everything he could for the people. He stayed, and he's got the experience."

Whites, with some exceptions, said they were fed up with the city's limping reconstruction, and would opt for Mr. Landrieu. Mr. Nagin, for his part, promised voters better days while campaigning in his trademark casual style at the market, cooing at a baby by the poultry counter, hugging sales clerks at the flower stand and urging an outdoor diner to get rich: "Make all you can stand, man," he said.

He received barely 6 percent of whites' votes in the primary, but asserted Friday that they were coming back to his camp. There was some evidence of it.

"He's a true New Orleanian. He shoots from the hip," said Bruce Pennington, who is white, shopping at the market. "He may say some stupid things, but as a New Orleanian, I understand his stupidity."

Mr. Landrieu earnestly pleaded for unity — a nod to the 24 percent of black voters who supported him in the primary — and for change, at a noontime rally for campaign workers and supporters, well-attended by leading local businessmen and political figures, at his headquarters on St. Charles Avenue.

"This great city has one chance," Mr. Landrieu said. "It's going to be coming from all of you, holding hands." The familiar faces in the crowd were testimony to his success in rounding up this city's establishment figures, who have largely deserted Mr. Nagin. Mr. Landrieu has raised nearly $4 million, according to his campaign treasurer. Mr. Nagin is known to have raised far less — his list of contributors is far shorter — though his treasurer did not return calls Friday.

There has been relatively little street-level campaigning. Both candidates are extremely well-known — Mr. Landrieu has been in public life for 18 years here, and his family has played a leading political role for nearly five decades. And many neighborhoods are still uninhabited, so a plethora of televised debates has largely substituted for heavy advertising and pavement-pounding.

"The last thing they need is media attention, because there's been so much already," said Ed Renwick, director of the Institute of Politics at Loyola University. Besides, "people refer to Mitch like he's a member of the family. They never say Landrieu. They know them both so well."

Mr. Landrieu's television advertisements have spotlighted individual residents, in neighborhood settings, complaining about the pace of recovery. The lieutenant governor appears in several spots, in one complaining about the continuing presence of flooded-out, ruined cars under the elevated highways, a ghostly presence that has emerged as a symbol of the city's stagnation.

Mr. Nagin has had far less of a campaign presence, on television or otherwise. On Friday, he exhibited no worry at all about being unseated, which would be a rarity in this city's political history.

Instead, Mr. Nagin, a former cable television executive who entered politics only four years ago, once again displayed some astonishment at his current position.

"This is the biggest reality TV show ever, and I'm right in the middle of it," he said.