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Race is the hot topic in New Orleans debate

The top seven candidates running for mayor of New Orleans took part in a nationally televised debate Monday night. NBC's Elizabeth Wilner analyzes the outcome.
/ Source: NBC News

At first glance, the mayoral debate seemed like any other -- a forum in which the challengers focused most of their attacks on the incumbent, who spent much of his allotted time defending his record and trying to turn the problems that have plagued his administration into a positive in the name of experience.

But Monday night's New Orleans mayoral debate also reflected the unprecedented circumstances of this election, first and foremost by being broadcast on national television, on MSNBC.

Viewers outside New Orleans may not have recognized any of the seven candidates who took part except for Democratic Mayor Ray Nagin, but they knew the images shown on the screen of the African-American crowds chanting "Help" outside the city's convention center, the broken levees, and neighborhoods flooded to the rooftops.

Co-moderators Chris Matthews of MSNBC and Norman Robinson of NBC affiliate WDSU grilled the candidates on their plans to rebuild the city and why Americans who don't live there -- such as, as Matthews suggested, a cabdriver in Detroit -- should provide them with financial support, hammering in that New Orleans is a national problem, not just a state or local problem.

Among the seven candidates who took part were the three leading contenders for the job: Nagin, Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu (D), and businessman Ron Forman (D), head of the city's popular zoo and aquarium.

After the primary ballots are counted on Saturday night, two of these three are expected to advance to a runoff scheduled for May 20.

The candidates have participated in several forums by now, including in other cities where large numbers of Hurricane Katrina evacuees have settled, but this was the first debate that displaced residents around the country were able to see live.

Notable omissions
Amidst all the talking, there were some notable omissions: former FEMA administrator Michael Brown's name never came up, and when asked to name a mayor he most admired, Landrieu declined to name his own father, the last white mayor of the city. Landrieu also declined to defend his father when another candidate criticized him. And no candidate mentioned Nagin as the mayor he or she most admired, which Nagin dismissed by saying his story is not yet finished.

Asked whether or not they approve of President Bush's overall performance, the two Republicans in the field and Forman, a former Republican, said they approve; the other four said they disapprove.

But the horse race of this election has always been about, well, race, and the topic came up repeatedly during the hour in discussions about looters, "pimps" and "welfare queen," about what happened at the convention center, and about Nagin's controversial "chocolate city" remark.

Beyond the campaign discourse, while the voters weigh the candidates' backgrounds and their proposals to rebuild the city, the campaign operatives and political handicappers are focusing on who can put together the winning -- and second-placing -- combination of white and African-American votes.

Based on conversations with some of these aides and analysts, the general view of the contest among the three lead contenders is that Nagin is the most dependent on the African-American vote, Landrieu's tally is expected to include the next largest percentage, and Forman's tally the smallest. Conversely, Forman's vote count is expected to include roughly the biggest percentage of whites, Landrieu's the next largest, and Nagin's the least.

Whites still in the city
Complicating efforts to calculate which two candidates will make it into the runoff is the fact that while most of the city's white vote still lives here, the bulk of the African-American vote is scattered around the country and may or may not choose to participate in the election. All three candidates have traveled to cities outside the state where large numbers of evacuees have settled in an effort to win their support.

Like his father and his sister, now a U.S. senator, Landrieu has always depended upon winning a healthy percentage of minority votes in his bids for office. Forman's base of support is in the more affluent areas of New Orleans, which are white, but he has made a concerted effort to reach out to African-Americans.

Louisiana political analyst John Maginnis says he expects that Forman "was hoping to get more of the black vote, but has a shot" at making the runoff "with just whites." "He's still the candidate of the Boston Club," jokes Maginnis, who also says he thinks there's a chance that Forman and Landrieu could make the runoff, shutting Nagin out.

Nagin is one of only two African-Americans in the 22-candidate field, and only one with a real shot at winning. Since his ability to run on his record is complicated by his performance during and after Hurricane Katrina, his best hope may be to make the race about race, calling attention in various ways to the fact that he is the only viable option for voters who care about having an African-American mayor.

Will evacuees vote?
Those civil rights activists focused on the election, including the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton and the head of the NAACP, worry that African-American evacuees may be disenfranchised because the state, in their view, has not done enough to ensure that they can easily cast ballots and that those ballots will be counted. Louisiana election officials set up satellite polling places around Louisiana and undertook a multi-state effort to educate displaced voters on how to request and cast absentee ballots. The Justice Department and a federal court rejected activists' appeals to postpone the election until more can be done.

But an underlying concern for these activists is that if evacuees don't vote in large numbers, the electorate of this formerly majority-black city will reveal itself, post-Katrina, to be majority-white -- and potentially result in the ouster of an African-American mayor for a white one, even though all three frontrunners are Democrats.

Political operatives in Washington, meanwhile, are watching the early and absentee vote totals to see how many evacuees participate in the election, providing the first measure of what the electorate of this new state looks like. If a good portion of the state's displaced African-American residents don't indicate an interest in continuing to vote in local elections, Republicans may see an opportunity. One top GOP operative says he's "looking at two things: 1) how many people vote as compared to past mayoral elections, and 2) where all the votes come from." The operative wants to see where the votes come from, he says, because "large numbers of new voters could change the partisan makeups of both where they left and where they've settled."

As of Monday morning, 16,393 people had voted in the election via in-person early voting or by returning an absentee ballot. Only one-third of the absentee ballots requested so far have actually been returned. Approximately 66 percent percent of those casting ballots have been African-American.