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Campaign ’96 : REPUBLICANS : Louisiana’s Attempt to Spice Up Presidential Race Falls Flat : Many residents, candidates and pundits are treating state’s first-in-the-nation caucuses as a nonevent. But stakes are high for Gramm and Buchanan.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The first votes of the 1996 presidential race will be cast Tuesday in this tiny Cajun-tinged hamlet, an unlikely site for such a momentous occasion, especially because not a single candidate has visited or bothered to post a sign.

Then again, it wasn’t political activism but ironic gimmickry that inspired the Louisiana Republican Party to convene its first-in-the-nation caucuses here 30 minutes before they start elsewhere in the state. “Louisiana will uphold the tradition that ‘Iowa goes first,’ ” GOP officials boasted, taking a jab at the town’s Farm Belt namesake, which has customarily hosted the election season’s opening act.

But in Louisiana’s case, going first hasn’t translated into influence and prestige. With several of the GOP’s leading candidates boycotting the maverick event--plus a population of registered voters that is only 20% Republican, of whom only a fraction are expected to attend the caucuses--the campaign in Louisiana has more closely resembled a publicity stunt than a trend-setting presidential contest.

“Much ado about nothing,” said Ed Renwick, director of the Institute of Politics at New Orleans’ Loyola University.

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Still, because perception often becomes reality in politics, the Louisiana caucuses loom as a crucial test for its two best-known entrants, Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas and commentator Patrick J. Buchanan.

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Each wants to emerge from Tuesday’s vote as the sole conservative alternative to the GOP front-runners, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole and millionaire publisher Steve Forbes. Gramm, who is heavily favored here, needs to win impressively to shore up his flagging campaign; a strong showing by Buchanan, even if he doesn’t win, could be bandied as a moral victory less than a week before all the candidates compete in the state of Iowa’s Feb. 12 caucuses.

“Each of these guys has to get past the other if he’s going to have any success,” said Richard Murray, a University of Houston political scientist. “The absence of the other candidates devalues [the Louisiana vote], but it’s still an opportunity to see who can turn out the troops on the right end of the Republican spectrum.”

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Buchanan, according to the conventional wisdom, has the most to gain. Flush from a surprise win in a straw poll among Alaska Republicans this week, he has been sinking a considerable chunk of his war chest into Louisiana TV ads. It is a gamble that he believes will propel him from “the semifinals” of Louisiana into “the finals” of New Hampshire.

Although Buchanan is the underdog here, he is in the enviable position of being able to exceed expectations simply by thwarting a Gramm sweep of the 21 delegates at stake. Every delegate Buchanan wins in Louisiana would be “gravy,” he said in an interview, eagerly spinning the scenario he hopes will come out of the balloting, which will be conducted at a limited number of locations between 4 and 8 p.m. CST.

“If Gramm wins all the delegates, as predicted, it’s not going to have that much meaning, but if we do well, it will have some meaning,” he said. “We know that we’re up against a stacked deck . . . but you can’t let Phil Gramm have 21 delegates without a contest.”

Gramm, as a Texan, is virtually on home turf in Louisiana, and a decisive romp would not only buoy his troops heading into the Iowa caucuses but help propel him into the important Southern primaries in March. His political ties here are so strong, in fact, that Gramm was accused of orchestrating Louisiana’s new nation-leading caucus date for the sole purpose of scoring an early victory--a charge he has denied.

One good sign for Gramm was the resounding victory he scored here in a 1995 straw poll. But political analysts are wondering whether his Louisiana campaign will be undercut by his failure to meet early expectations that he would be Dole’s chief rival for the Republican nomination.

While campaigning in Lafayette this week, Gramm acknowledged the importance of scoring big on Tuesday, saying that if he won only 11 of Louisiana’s 21 delegates, “it would be a victory, but it would be a kind of kissing-your-sister victory.”

His press secretary, Gary Koops, offered a more positive spin on the arithmetic, noting that even 11 delegates would instantly put Gramm ahead in the race to challenge President Clinton. “To have the delegate lead on Feb. 7 isn’t a bad thing,” Koops said.

But the odd dynamics of campaigning as a Republican in a traditionally Democratic state were also underscored that night in Lafayette, where Gramm was participating in one of his intimate “kitchen table” economic chats. His hosts, Robert and Jackie Cassidy, appeared perfectly tailored for Gramm’s balanced-budget message: Handsome, 30-something, middle-class professionals, worried about the financial burdens their three daughters may someday inherit.

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As the cameras rolled, however, one inconvenient fact wasn’t put on the table alongside the coffee and pecan pie. Unbeknownst to the Gramm campaign, Robert Cassidy had switched to the GOP just two days earlier. Louisiana caucus rules require participants to have registered as Republicans at least 30 days before Tuesday’s contest, so he’s not eligible to participate.

“I would have voted for him,” Cassidy said.

The glitch illustrates the larger dilemma that plagues not only the Louisiana GOP, but the party throughout the South--even as its candidates have made unprecedented gains, actual Republican registration does not yet reflect rapidly shifting allegiances.

Along with the narrow base of GOP voters, a small number of polling places (42) and short voting hours likely will mean that only the most dedicated Republican activists show up for the Louisiana caucuses.

As a result, the whole process has had the surreal air of a private party to which only a handful of guests is invited. A very public party--this month’s Mardi Gras--has produced more TV ads than all the presidential hopefuls combined.

“Caucus?” asked a befuddled chef in Thursday’s New Orleans Times-Picayune editorial cartoon. “I use just a pinch in my gumbo.”

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Despite the apparent indifference, state GOP officials couldn’t be happier. Rather than compare Louisiana’s contest to the clout of Iowa’s caucuses or New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary, they look back to just four years ago, when the state’s mid-March primary was overshadowed by several contests on the same day, including ones in Florida and Texas.

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“It used to be that when candidates flew from Tallahassee to Austin, they didn’t even look down at Louisiana,” GOP consultant Rhett Davis said. We never had a voice before.”

How influential that voice becomes may have less to do with how many voters attend the caucuses than how much media attention the contest generates. Iowa and New Hampshire, after all, are small, atypical states without a great deal of inherent political muscle. But the spotlight on their electoral contests is so intense that the results are awarded disproportionate significance.

In tiny Iowa (pronounced I-o-way), a rice-and-petroleum community of 2,700 in the southwestern corner of Louisiana, city officials are already bracing for an onslaught of journalists. There will be a ribbon-cutting ceremony and a Mardi Gras parade. The police chief is even going to wax his squad car.

But Mike Guillory, the 48-year-old owner of Iowa Cycle & Power Equipment, which sits on the main drag of this one-stoplight town, wonders what sort of political exercise the news crews are going to observe.

“They’ll have to make up their own story,” he said, “because there’s nothing going on.”


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