- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 26, 2003

It was not particularly impressive that Lt. Gov. Kathleen Blanco, a career politician, had managed to win the governorship in a heavily Democratic state against a political novice, in a weak economy. Yet the tightness of her 52 percent win over Republican Bobby Jindal, a son of Indian immigrants who had never before run for office and who was supported by several black leaders — including New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin — showed how much politics is still dramatically changing in the Deep South.

Black voters make up more than a third of the state’s Democratic base and in the end they, plus rural whites, were the key constituencies that gave Mrs. Blanco her narrow margin to win back the governorship after eight years of Republican rule. But the closeness of the race was a fresh reminder the Democrats’ old populist coalition of minorities and urban voters is no longer what it was in the days of the once-solid Democratic South.

Louisiana has long been one of the poorest states in the country. It is the only Southern state that had a net outflow of people in the 1990s who left to look for work elsewhere in the South. Poverty, crime and joblessness in New Orleans is especially severe.

Mr. Jindal is an Ivy League, free-market policy wonk and a Rhodes Scholar who headed the state’s health and hospitals department and, later, the Louisiana University System. He was clearly one of the most refreshing new candidates to appear on the political scene this year and for a first-timer he made a huge impression on Louisianans of all persuasions, even those who had never voted Republican before.

He ran as an agent of change, promising to restructure the health-care system and revive the state’s economy by shrinking the bureaucracy and cutting taxes to lure new businesses into the state. “The answer to our problems isn’t higher taxes, it’s creating jobs,” he said in his campaign.

Mrs. Blanco’s agenda, on the other hand, was generally vague by most accounts. Famous for her uninspired, tortured syntax, she appealed to party loyalty, promoted her support for tourism and in the last 48 hours of the campaign leveled a barrage of TV attacks against Mr. Jindal for the cuts he made in the Medicaid budget to erase a $400 million deficit.

Political strategists said Mr. Jindal ran a nearly flawless campaign up to that point, and polls showed him leading in the final days. But when he failed to respond to Mrs. Blanco’s attacks, she pulled ahead.

Mr. Jindal forgot the No. 1 rule in political campaigns: Do not let any attack go unanswered. And he paid the price for it.

Another mistake: He turned down an invitation to have President Bush campaign for him in the final weeks. He believed a Bush appearance would only energize Mrs. Blanco’s voters more, but the president is popular in the state and he could have energized Mr. Jindal’s voters more.

The president campaigned for the other Republican gubernatorial candidates who were running this fall, two of them in the South, and all won by strong margins. They credited Mr. Bush for energizing the party’s base in the final days of their campaigns.

They included Haley Barbour in Mississippi, Ernie Fletcher of Kentucky and, in the biggest prize of all, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who recaptured the California governorship in a rare recall election that threw Democratic Gov. Gray Davis out of office.

Mr. Schwarzenneger has energized California Republicans as no one has since Ronald Reagan. If he succeeds in cleaning up the state’s fiscal mess, and the economy continues to turn around as it is expected to, the political environment in California will change dramatically. “This state is in play,” a presidential adviser told me.

These victories not only boost the number of Republican governors to 28, they give Mr. Bush and the Republicans fresh national momentum as they head into next year’s elections. Republican victories in Mississippi and Kentucky show how dominant the GOP has become in the Southern and Border states, a region that will be pivotal to the outcome of the 2004 presidential election and beyond.

Republicans will now control eight of the region’s 13 governors’ seats — from Florida to Texas — giving the GOP a much deeper political bench from which to draw its presidential candidates in the years to come.

The last three Democrats to occupy the White House were Southerners, two of them governors. Fewer governors means fewer chief executives to promote for higher office, a gloomy picture indeed of the Democrats’ political future.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.


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