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Proceed With Caution

Politics just doesn't get much more colorful and fascinating than it does in my home state of Louisiana. The latest escapade began when former Democratic Sen. John Breaux signaled that he is quite interested in going home to run for governor this year. That is, if Gov. Kathleen Blanco, also a Democrat, steps aside.

The conventional wisdom in the state is that Blanco can't get re-elected. Even most Democrats believe, fairly or not, that she was so badly damaged by her performance in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina it would take a near-miracle for her to win a second term. While Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour shined, Blanco faltered and appeared to be a bit shell-shocked.

Most observers of Louisiana politics assume that Republican Rep. Bobby Jindal will make it into the gubernatorial campaign runoff on November 17, assuming that he fails to reach the magic 50 percent mark in the October 20 nonpartisan primary. Jindal, who narrowly lost to Blanco in the 2003 runoff, is clearly the Republican establishment's candidate. He leads Blanco by 20 points or more in most polls.

Who else would make it to a runoff? Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell, a populist Democrat, is expected to jump in. But what about Breaux, who retired from the Senate in 2004 after three terms and is a senior counsel with the law firm Patton Boggs? Breaux now lives in Talbot County on Maryland's Eastern Shore.

Louisiana's constitution says that statewide candidates must be at least 25 years old and must have been a citizen of the United States and of Louisiana for the preceding five years. Sources close to Breaux say that judges in Louisiana are very lenient about defining residency and tend not to limit voters' options.

To be sure, Breaux, 63, remains the most popular political figure in Louisiana. He won re-election in 1998 with 64 percent of the vote and in 1992 with 73 percent. Under any normal circumstances, Breaux would be a cinch to win election to any statewide office he chose.

So let's assume that Blanco opts out -- most Louisiana Democrats think that she would step aside for a strong replacement candidate -- and Breaux secures a spot on the ballot. An all-important question remains: Should Breaux run? A layperson's reading of the Louisiana Constitution suggests that he isn't eligible to run now and won't be in 2011, either. And even if a judge OKs his candidacy, wouldn't many Louisianans still consider it illegitimate?

I've known Breaux for more than 20 years. I made the mistake of underestimating him before his impressive upset victory over then-Rep. Henson Moore in 1986, and I consider him both a friend and someone who would make an excellent governor. But a Breaux run now isn't a great idea.

First, Louisiana is changing, and if you are a Democrat, the changes are not for the better. Katrina has cost the state 50,000 to 100,000 Democratic voters.

Blanco's victory margin in 2003 was just 54,874 votes. Democrat Mary Landrieu won her Senate races by 5,788 votes in 1996, and 42,012 votes in 2002. Republican Rep. David Vitter won Breaux's old Senate seat in 2004 by 400,864 votes, beating Democrat Chris John 51 percent to 29 percent.

In the Gallup Organization's aggregated national political surveys for 2005 and 2006, Louisiana is the only state that trended more Republican.

Second, if Breaux is allowed on the ballot -- a big "if," according to lawyers I have talked to -- wouldn't his candidacy nonetheless seem to violate the spirit of the law? Quite a few Louisiana Democrats who love and respect Breaux believe that his running under those circumstances would not sit well with voters. Maybe he would win; maybe he wouldn't.

If you are Breaux, you've had a great run in the House and Senate, befriended two presidents, co-chaired a federal commission on tax reform, and settled into a private-sector job that is making you a ton of money. Do you really want to get into a nasty race -- and face a genuine risk of defeat?

After Katrina, Barbour showed that a governor with Washington connections can summon serious federal assistance. Breaux could do the same if he won. But his running under dubious circumstances would be like a heavyweight champ's fighting with one hand tied behind his back. That's not the way for Breaux to get back into the ring.

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