New Orleans Race For Mayor Is Tight

By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 20, 2006

NEW ORLEANS, May 19 -- Mayor C. Ray Nagin made a final flurry of appearances in his campaign for reelection here Friday, jumping into traffic to lobby commuters, visiting senior centers and walking the aisles of a gourmet grocery, moving within a halo of news photographers.

"How you doing, baby?" he cooed to shoppers at the Whole Foods Market in Uptown. "I'm doing good, doing good."

Behind in fundraising and behind in major endorsements, and with his campaign undermined by some of his controversial remarks, Nagin is nonetheless running well enough that, to the surprise of many here, the race against Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu is considered too close to call.

The outcome will decide who will lead New Orleans at a critical time of rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina, helping determine whether the city can regain its place in the nation's cultural history.

The winner will also be the face of the city to the rest of the country and will have to make the case for federal assistance to rebuild the city, which is largely below sea level.

"It's the wildest ride I've ever been on," Nagin said outside the grocery. "This is the biggest reality television show ever, and I'm right in the middle of it."

The two candidates running for mayor here often hold identical positions on the major issues of rebuilding. But when it comes to style and temperament, they stand in stark contrast to one another, as the final full day of campaigning showed.

While Nagin made a number of appearances, Landrieu gathered supporters together at his campaign headquarters, where a tuba, a trombone and a banjo played "You Are My Sunshine." Once an aspiring actor, his remarks inclined to oratory.

"How can all of us come together?" he asked the group. "This great city has one chance. . . . Tomorrow is the day we will begin again."

Despite the rhetoric, however, Landrieu confessed afterward that while he was certain before the primary that he would make it to the runoff, he carried no such assumptions of success into Saturday's vote.

"I have no confidence about tomorrow -- I don't know how it's going to turn out," he said. "I said after the primary this was going to be a 50-50 race, and that's what I think it's going to be. And I don't know how it's going to fall."

Nagin won the primary with 38 percent of the vote; Landrieu finished second with 29 percent.

Nagin his touted his margin of victory. But Landrieu has proven much better at fundraising.

Moreover, because Nagin did so poorly among white voters in the primary -- drawing only 6 percent of their votes, many here had assumed he would fare poorly in tomorrow's election because he needs to win a larger portion of the white vote.

But Nagin, who won broad support from white voters in his first mayoral run, this time around won the endorsement of Rob Couhig, a white Republican who finished fourth in the primary. Nagin has played up Couhig's endorsement in ads, as well as his administration's efforts to root out chronic city corruption.

"Ray is an affable, honest guy, and we haven't had too many honest politicians in this city," Couhig said when asked to explain Nagin's appeal.


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