JACKI LYDEN, host:
From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Jacki Lyden. It's a strong year for Democrats in the U.S. Senate races, and incumbent Mary Landrieu of Louisiana has long been considered the weak link. Many of her supporters were scattered to other states by hurricanes, and her opponent, Democrat-turned-Republican John Kennedy, was recruited by none other than Karl Rove. Now with two weeks to go before the election, Landrieu has jumped to a clear lead. NPR's Audie Cornish reports from New Orleans.
AUDIE CORNISH: Senator Mary Landrieu says she knew this year Republicans were counting on a shot at her Senate seat.
Senator MARY LANDRIEU (Democrat, Louisiana): Well, I think they just miscalculated - no, I don't think. They miscalculated. I mean, they kept - just because you say someone is vulnerable, doesn't mean they're vulnerable.
CORNISH: That's the senator at a coffee shop just a mile or two away from the scene of one of the levee breaks from 2005. Her opponent campaigned just the day before at a diner in suburban New Orleans.
(Soundbite of John Kennedy campaign event)
(Soundbite of applause)
Mr. JOHN KENNEDY (Republican, Louisiana State Treasurer): Well, I want - I want to thank - I want to thank everybody for coming out...
CORNISH: State treasurer John Kennedy was up until last year a socially conservative Democrat. He switched to the Republican Party to challenge Landrieu.
Mr. KENNEDY: Her platform is, I know how to work the system in Washington. And I think she's missed the issue in this race. The issue in this race is whether the system in Washington is working for us. And I don't know about other states, but it's not working for Louisiana, and we need to change it.
CORNISH: Kennedy says his message is one of conservative change and reform. And his base consists of Republicans like Margaret Baird(ph) of Metairie, who doesn't trust the Democratic incumbent.
Ms. MARGARET BAIRD: I think she's too liberal for Louisiana.
CORNISH: Or voters like Carol Grace(ph) of Harahan who is most concerned about the balance of power on the Senate floor in Washington.
Ms. CAROL GRACE: Because the Senate is going to be mainly Democrat, they're expecting it that they're going to be able to pass anything that they want. And I think that we need a Republican in there.
CORNISH: But so far, Kennedy has failed to win over voters like Lindsay McCann(ph). She saw both the candidates at a recent Senate debate at the University of New Orleans and left backing Landrieu.
Ms. LINDSAY MCCANN: She's always fought for us, whether, you know, getting us money - getting us money when FEMA didn't come through, when the president didn't come through. She's a strong supporter of being a bipartisan candidate, and I think that has a great influence, you know, bringing Republicans to her side.
CORNISH: Unlike some other Louisiana politicians, Landrieu's reputation has only improved since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita more than three and a half years ago, and perhaps even more so this summer when two more hurricanes hit the state, says Professor Pearson Cross of the University of Lafayette.
Dr. PEARSON CROSS (Professor of Political Science, University of Lafayette): In fact, Gustav and Ike provided Mary Landrieu with an opportunity to look and act as if she was getting something done for Louisiana and to bring aid down here, and in fact just showcased the senator's effectiveness.
CORNISH: When those storms hit in August, Kennedy paused his campaign and lost ground in the polls, and Landrieu was able to paint herself as a powerbroker with bipartisan credentials on issues like offshore drilling. Landrieu says change may be the mantra in other states, but that's just not the case when it comes to her role as a senior senator from Louisiana.
Senator LANDRIEU: Our people need the federal government right now. I mean, our people need the federal government to work and work effectively. And they know that it failed them. They want it fixed. But they don't think that they can do this on their own. They recognize that they need state and local government to continue to help them, and so they want somebody that's been around the block that understands the system, that's proven she can deliver.
CORNISH: At least some Republicans have gotten that message. The national party's waffled on pulling its advertising out of the state with a concession that their lone target may no longer be a target. And several state Republicans, including the sheriff of Kennedy's own county, have endorsed Landrieu. Audie Cornish, NPR News, New Orleans.
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