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Analysis: Republican Bill Cassidy tries to sidestep tough spots in La.'s tight US Senate race

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BATON ROUGE, Louisiana — As he tries to become Louisiana's next U.S. senator, Republican Bill Cassidy is vulnerable to attack from two sides.

The GOP congressman is playing defense against hits from both Democratic incumbent Mary Landrieu and tea party favorite Rob Maness because the state's unusual "jungle primary" has all candidates, regardless of party, running against each other in the Nov. 4 election.

Instead of being able to focus on the three-term incumbent senator he wants to unseat, Cassidy also is battling criticism from Maness on the right that he isn't conservative enough.

Cassidy has responded to the political tightrope by making himself less accessible, more attack-prone and less interested in engaging in public policy debates, with only six weeks remaining before the election.

It's a tactic used by candidates around the country in tight races, based on the concept that voters make their choices on party affiliation and certain hot-button items, rather than being sophisticated enough to want nuanced policy discussion.

Though Landrieu is the incumbent with nearly 18 years in the job, Cassidy has momentum on his side and doesn't want to risk it.

Polls show the Republican congressman neck-and-neck with Landrieu, and in some instances leading the field, with Maness third. Cassidy's also caught up with Landrieu in the fundraising battle because Landrieu has been spending millions more on her campaign.

"Cassidy is in an extraordinarily formidable position here. He's got the upper hand," said LSU political science professor Robert Hogan.

Cassidy's campaign centers on the idea that a vote for Landrieu represents a vote for President Barack Obama, who lost Louisiana in 2012 and remains highly unpopular here. He's using the same strategy as Republican organizations who regularly mention Landrieu and Obama in the same breath to try to keep that tie foremost in voters' minds.

In his speeches, Cassidy regularly claims that Landrieu is a rubber stamp for the president, and he says Obama's regulatory policies, philosophy and method of governing are at odds with the values and views of Louisiana.

"Every week President Obama does something to help our campaign. She supports the president 97 percent of the time. People see that, they come to us," Cassidy said.

He talks of Landrieu's vote for the Affordable Care Act, the health care overhaul championed by Obama and unpopular in Louisiana. He tells voters that if he wins, control of the Senate will flip to the GOP and away from Democratic leaders linked with the president.

He largely steers clear of describing any detailed policies he'd like to pass if elected to the Senate, besides the generic offering of "repeal Obamacare."

The tactic of tying Landrieu to the national Democratic Party as a way to sink her hasn't worked before, as voters separated her record from that of her party. But as the state becomes a more solidly Republican landscape, Cassidy's campaign clearly thinks the strategy that didn't work six years ago can pull out a victory this time.

Voters seeking more details of Cassidy's policy positions will have a limited debate schedule to get such access.

Out of five proposed TV debates, the Republican congressman agreed to only two with Landrieu and Maness, on Oct. 14 in Shreveport and Oct. 29 in Baton Rouge. Both will air statewide.

"Sen. Landrieu prefers to interact with voters in highly scripted TV events that don't require interacting with Louisianans. Bill Cassidy is busy driving throughout Louisiana as he meets and listens to as many citizens as possible across the state," Cassidy spokesman John Cummins said in a statement when asked about the slim debate list.

Despite that claim, the unscripted possibilities of a TV debate are most likely what Cassidy and his handlers are trying to avoid.

In debates, candidates can't necessarily anticipate all questions, can get thrown off talking points and can have one awkwardly worded response become a campaign blunder showcased in a 30-second TV ad.

In a good debate, candidates can be forced to offer more depth and specifics.

Those types of vulnerabilities don't fit into the strategy when a candidate is trying to play it safe and simply maintain the momentum.


EDITOR'S NOTE: Melinda Deslatte covers Louisiana politics for The Associated Press.

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