As the campaign van whipped down Dream Come True Highway, past docked shrimp boats and idled oil rigs, mailboxes changed from Smith to Boudreaux, and Edwin Edwards, Democratic contender for governor, started kissing the ladies long and hard and whispering, "Cherie."
Between stops, aides interrupted his banter of ribald jokes to report that Gov. David C. Treen, the state's first Republican chief executive since Reconstruction, was calling Edwards a "con man" who lined his pals' pockets in "stinking" deals when he was governor and now "wants another bite of the apple."
To make matters worse, a federal grand jury report had blasted Edwards for promoting a state employes' investment program in which he held a financial interest during his second term as governor. Edwards laughed it off: he was not indicted. The U.S. attorney in charge of the probe was a Republican, he noted.
"Well, they took their best shot," he said.
"Yeah, they took their best shot and lost, boss," echoed Leonard Chabert, a beefy state senator up for reelection.
And the van rolled on for another spicy day of Believe-It-Or-Not politics down in the bayou.
Political gurus in both camps agree that the grand jury report is unlikely to dislodge Edwards as the front-runner in the bitter 10-man race, which boils down to Treen vs. Edwards. One independent poll, looking ahead to the Oct. 22 election, gives Edwards a 44-to-33 percent lead over Treen. Treen polls concede Edwards a narrower lead.
"It looks so good it scares you," said Matt Reese, a Washington-based political consultant hired by Edwards.
Both sides are prepared to spend $6 million apiece, with Republicans targeting heavy Washington support for their only southern governor facing reelection this year.
Many observers say they view the race as a test of whether Louisiana is ready to break off its century-old love affair with colorful political characters in the mold of the late Huey Long and settle down with the kind of quiet, predictable governors most southern states are favoring.
Even today, Louisiana voters shamelessly tell pollsters they believe Treen to be the more honest of the two but they favor Edwards.
Gus Weill, cigar-chomping novelist and PR man for Treen, contemplated the curious Edwards phenomenon as the politics of entertainment: "Politics is our pro football. It's the baseball franchise we don't possess. It's our Broadway, our Rose Bowl Parade . . . . "
But, he added: "I'm not so sure that he who makes us laugh the most is the one who will get the votes on election day anymore."
Edwards skunked Treen for governor in 1967. But Treen won a tight race four years ago, when Edwards was prevented by law from seeking a third term. It was then that Treen's troubles began: a legislature dominated by Edwards' loyalists.
Still, he managed to win pay raises for teachers, settled a longstanding desegregation lawsuit and fought to protect vast wetlands. But critics say he gets bogged down in details and can't make decisions.
After Treen cut income taxes and miscalculated future revenues, the state wound up with whopping deficits. Recession, a free-spending legislature and tumbling oil prices didn't help. For every $1 price drop in a barrel of oil, Louisiana loses $4 million in tax revenues. But his cardinal sin in a state that likes its politicians as savory as its jambalaya: he's boring. Lean, white-haired, a four-term congressman who resembles TV's Ted Baxter, Treen predictably stresses integrity, jobs and fiscal restraint while fighting an image of aloofness.
Edwards, on the other hand, is "Fast Eddie," a handsome rogue politican with the wit of a stand-up comic and an unabashed love for Las Vegas gambling.
"There isn't anything they can say about me they haven't already said," Edwards said.
And the van plunged deeper into Cajun country, where he claims French roots among a people especially forgiving of their own.
Long forgotten is the mink coat that his wife of 34 years, Elaine, still wears. It was purchased a decade back with a controversial $10,000 cash gift from Tongsun Park, the South Korean businessman whose gifts to congressmen sparked a 1977 federal grand jury influence-peddling investigation.
Edwards survived the grand jury then and a later FBI sting operation called Brilab, in which a former top Edwards official was convicted of taking kickbacks. Edwards said he was approached by an undercover operative who tried to bribe him and failed.
Such tightrope walks are detailed in a thick black briefing book the Treen headquarters uses as a bible. "Do you want me to bring the scandal book?" asked a campaign aide.
John Cade, Treen's top lieutenant, nodded. The tome was produced. It is indexed with such headings as: Brilab, Gifts, General Scandal, Government Scandal, Campaign Scandal, Ethics, Bribery, Lying.
"It's been taken to the gutter as fast as you can get there," said a gleeful Roy Fletcher, a Treen ad man whose TV spots probe old Edwards wounds. "Keep It Treen," urges one, rhyming with clean. "What's Wrong With an Honest Governor?" asks another.
The debonair Edwards--a three-term congressman, a two-term governor and a politician with nine lives--has never lost a race, however.
With unemployment above 12 percent, the wealthy oil and gas lawyer has a powerful populist appeal among blacks, labor, teachers and state employes, groups that account for about half the electorate.
From flatbed trailers, he promised jobs, roasted Treen for deficits and tossed golf balls, accusing his rival of being too busy on the links to respond to emergencies.
"I may be in Las Vegas on a hot roll, but if you need me, I'll be back in a minute," Edwards said to whoops of delight.
He mesmerized, charmed, cajoled, brought a crowd to its feet, reminded them of better times, lapsed into French to prove his pedigree.
Toothless men clamored to shake his hand. Women lined up for kisses. Lily Mae Danos, mother of two, gave him a fervent smack and swooned, "I'm not going to wash my mouth out for a month."
Edwards climbed aboard a bus full of supporters and rolled on down the road, criss-crossing Cajun country 100 miles southwest of New Orleans, where Edwards is the reigning Kingfish. "Who built that bridge?" he asked.
"Edwin Edwards!" they shouted.
At Lockport, Mayor Al Robichaux, warmed up the crowd for the main event: "All Dave Treen talks about is Edwin Edwards and integrity. But you can't pay your grocery bills and drug bills with integrity. You need jobs."
"The difference between me and Dave Treen is that I admit I make deals, but they're good deals for Louisiana," Edwards said. "If I walked a tightrope, I never fell off--and I never kissed the devil."
At a small bayou town called Cutoff, 700 people packed a gymnasium for spicy shrimp and red-hot rhetoric.
"He's not lily white," said Mack Picou, 48, a harbor captain and ex-state trooper. "But he's a smart cookie. He's been able to stay ahead of the feds for a long time. A lot of his deals leave a lot to be desired, but at least we got something in return. Now we're getting nothing."
Dick Guidry, 53, a former state legislator, predicted an Edwards landslide.
"This is one of the few places in the United States where you're innocent until proven guilty," he said. "Even if he had been indicted, he'd still be elected. And if he were convicted, I still wouldn't bet against him."