Sugar Pill

By

On Tuesday morning, December 3, Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu of
Louisiana appeared done for. With her poll numbers diving a few days
before the December 7 runoff that would determine her political
future--advisers say her support among white voters had dipped
below 30 percent--Landrieu seemed like a wobbly pin about to topple
and thus complete the strike Republicans had bowled in the 2002
elections. The national media had all but written her off, and
President George W. Bush was flying in to give her Republican
opponent, Suzie Terrell, the star treatment that had worked for so
many GOP candidates in November. "We felt that we needed something
big to happen," says Landrieu media consultant David Eichenbaum.And then lightning struck. On Tuesday, the Landrieu campaign got a
call from a tipster directing them to an obscure Mexican newspaper
called Reforma that had an interesting story about ... sugar. It
hardly seemed the stuff of high campaign drama, but Landrieu had
been trying for weeks to flog rumors that the Bush administration
would increase sugar imports from Mexico, which would be a sure
blow to Louisiana's $1.7 billion sugar industry. The White House
had denied the talk, and the story hadn't gained much traction.

A Democratic Party researcher in Washington quickly tracked down the
Reforma story on the Web. Quoting Mexican government officials, it
reported a Bush administration agreement to double Mexican
sugar-import quotas. Sensing an opportunity, Landrieu's advisers
held a 90-minute conference call that night, after which Eichenbaum
retreated to his production studio. He emerged after 8 a. m. with
an ad that breathlessly exposed the "secret deal" with Mexico and
fumed that Terrell "didn't say a word" about sugar to Bush during
his visit. "Suzie Terrell put her party and campaign ahead of our
state," it declared. "We need a senator who will put Louisiana
first."

The ad began to run Wednesday night, and suddenly Landrieu's
prospects turned, well, sweeter. Landrieu, whom Terrell had savaged
for months--charging that she had abandoned her Catholicism and
lived in a Washington "mansion"--had already hit back hard, running
ads that called Terrell a "paid lobbyist for a foreign drug
company"--a line The New York Times interpreted as a sinister
reference to Terrell's Lebanese heritage. The emergence of a "secret
deal" with Mexico fit nicely with the theme of Terrell's foreign
ties. Groups of Landrieu backers "with 10-foot stalks of weather
beaten sugar cane in their hands and wide-brimmed sombreros on
their heads," as a Congressional Quarterly reporter put it, began
disrupting Terrell's campaign events. Terrell defensively relayed
denials from the White House, but, in the absence of strong
counterevidence, it looked like she was aiding a cover-up. Both
Democrats and Republicans say the ad--combined with a furious
ground operation in the race's closing hours-- dragged Landrieu
across the finish line.

Democrats have been quick to pronounce Landrieu's victory a blow to
Bush and the notion of a 2002 Republican surge. "It was a great day
for Democrats," Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle gloated this
week, one which "demonstrated without a doubt that there wasn't any
overwhelming [Republican] victory at all. " But Democrats shouldn't
get too cocky. Until she was saved by the sugar story- -hardly the
basis for a national Democratic message--Landrieu was sinking. Her
advisers were panicky both about her support among whites and about
the prospect of a weak black turnout. Even in its final days, in
fact, Landrieu's campaign was still hobbled by halfhearted support
from some key black leaders.

Finding a winning balance between black and white support is the
ultimate challenge for Southern Democrats, and Landrieu was no
exception. After she failed to win 50 percent on November 5,
forcing her into the runoff, she fired most of her top campaign
staff. Among other things, Landrieu had never liked their casting
of her as a pro-Bush "conservative," preferring the image of an
independent "moderate," which was more acceptable to black voters.
Landrieu also called in Donna Brazile, Al Gore's 2000 campaign
manager, to win over local black leaders who had never warmed to
Landrieu--especially an influential Baton Rouge state senator named
Cleo Fields. Brazile talked Fields and other black leaders into
recording Landrieu endorsements for local radio. Even those leaders
who weren't crazy about Landrieu couldn't resist the up to $30,000
in free local media exposure the campaign was offering. (One ad,
cut by New Orleans Representative William Jefferson, had him
praising Landrieu's education record over warm strains of gospel
music.) Most crucially, perhaps, the state's democratic chairman,
Ben Jeffers, enlisted Jesse Jackson to press Fields for a
mid-November endorsement of Landrieu. Fields finally delivered.

But even those efforts didn't have things locked up by December 7,
runoff day. A frenzied Brazile found herself correcting last-minute
glitches, such as voter-turnout sound trucks destined for black
neighborhoods with white drivers at their wheels. With returns at 1
p.m. showing a perilously low black turnout-- perhaps due in part
to GOP voter suppression tactics in black areas, such as an
insidious flyer explaining that voters could cast late ballots the
following Tuesday--the Landrieu campaign put former President Bill
Clinton on the phone with Fields to insist ("in blunt terms," a
Landrieu aide told the New Orleans Times-Picayune) that Fields
needed to deliver more votes. Meanwhile, dozens of experienced
Democrats from around the country pitched in. Even Fred Hatfield,
chief of staff to Senator John Breaux, the state's supportive senior
Democrat, wasn't above standing on a New Orleans street corner with
a HONK IF YOU VOTED SIGN.

But none of it would have mattered without sugar, and Landrieu
almost didn't deliver the punch that probably won her the election
and saved the Democrats from another round of GOP gloating and
media ridicule. During the conference call on the night the Reforma
story was unearthed, Landrieu and her advisers debated whether or
not to turn the sugar story into a harsh attack ad. That same day,
Eichenbaum had shot footage for a positive spot, in which Landrieu
spoke gently into the camera, slated to close out the campaign on a
softer note. But participants in the discussion say Joe Hansen, a
veteran national operative who ran the final month of Landrieu's
campaign, was adamant about which course to follow: It was time to
throw "a long ball." The sugar story, he argued, could drive home
Landrieu's argument that Terrell was a blind supporter of Bush who
would sell out Louisiana's economic interests. Landrieu agreed, and
Eichenbaum embarked on his all-nighter.

Democrats may claim that Landrieu's victory shows the party does
have a winning message. But there may be a different lesson. As
Brazile puts it, "You cannot be nice. These people go for the
jugular. Mary proved that you can attack them back." Alas, that may
be as profound as the meaning of Landrieu's victory gets.

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