- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 5, 2002

BUNKIE, La. Even though Rodney Alexander is the man running for Congress, Bob Odom is the first one through the door at the tiny civic center in this town in the center of the state, where several dozen farmers have come to hear Mr. Alexander's campaign pitch.
When Mr. Odom, as agriculture commissioner and currently the longest-serving Democrat in office in Louisiana, backs someone, it counts for something among these folks. And he gives a strong endorsement to Mr. Alexander, a Democratic state representative in a runoff election with Republican Lee Fletcher in Louisiana's 5th Congressional District.
"The thing I can say about [Mr. Alexander], to all agriculture people: He has never, ever, voted against one agriculture issue as long as I've been commissioner," Mr. Odom tells the farmers, many of whom are taking a midafternoon break from harvesting sugar cane.
Mr. Alexander hopes those kinds of endorsements will be enough to distinguish him from Mr. Fletcher in this very conservative district where, from the perspective of Washington politics, it's nearly impossible to tell who is the Republican and who is the Democrat.
Both candidates claim to be pro-life, pro-gun and pro-President Bush in a district where those three things are considered prerequisites to talking about the rest of one's record.
"This is a conservative district, but I have as conservative a voting record as most Republicans with whom I serve," Mr. Alexander says, pointing to specific pro-life and pro-gun votes and his 90 percent rating from one of the conservative family values groups in Louisiana.
But Mr. Fletcher says that's all Mr. Alexander's recent attempt at redefining himself as more conservative than he really is.
"I've been running for 18 months as pro-life, pro-business, pro-Bush, pro-gun. He's been running that way for 18 days. He found that our message matches the district much better than his," says Mr. Fletcher, who is chief of staff for outgoing Rep. John Cooksey.
A poll released yesterday by the News-Star and KNOE-TV, both of Monroe, showed Mr. Fletcher ahead by 48 percent to 40 percent. The survey by Mason-Dixon Polling and Research sampled 405 likely voters and has a margin of error of 5 percentage points.
The two men are the survivors of a free-for-all primary. On the day the rest of the county holds winner-takes-all congressional elections, Louisiana holds an open primary, which means all candidates from all parties run against each other. A candidate needs 50 percent of the vote to win, and, failing that, a runoff ensues between the two top vote-getters, regardless of party.
In this race, Mr. Alexander topped the field, winning about 29 percent of the vote. Mr. Fletcher, meanwhile, beat out two other prominent Republicans former U.S. Rep. Clyde Holloway and state Sen. Robert Barham winning 25 percent of the vote and securing his spot in the runoff.
Mr. Fletcher has been able to rely on endorsements and visits from President Bush, Vice President Richard B. Cheney and Mr. Bush's father, the former president.
Mr. Alexander knows that to bring in incoming House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, would be suicide. Mr. Fletcher has already hammered at him for accepting contributions from Rep. Mike Thompson of California, one of the "Baghdad three" Democrats who traveled to Iraq earlier this year to meet with government officials and criticize Mr. Bush.
Instead, Mr. Alexander has countered with Mr. Odom and Rep. Charles W. Stenholm of Texas, the top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, who told the farmers in Bunkie that Republicans are holding up disaster-relief money that the farmers say they desperately need to make up for two years of bad weather.
Louisiana's 5th District will provide a chance to see whether Democrats have learned how to match to a district a candidate who disagrees with much of what the party stands for in Washington.
Republicans who live in the district say it's the kind of district that wants to send a conservative to Congress.
"It's a district that's a Bush-performing district, a district that both Bushes carried. It's a district also that's elected two Republican congressmen Jim McCrery and John Cooksey were the last two members to hold the seat," Mr. Fletcher says.
It's another of those Southern rural districts where about 65 percent of its voters are registered Democrats, and most of the local sheriffs and state representatives are Democrats.
But the higher the office, the more likely these Democrats are to vote for a Republican. House races fall right on that dividing line they are still local enough for Democrats to have a chance, although 70 percent of those who voted Nov. 5 chose one of the several Republican candidates.

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