If Mary Landrieu, John Kennedy or anyone else wants to be Louisiana’s next U.S. senator, there are five challenges that must be knocked out — or at least figured out. Louisiana’s continuing U.S. Senate race will soon become a bloody, backhanded, knockdown brawl. The contest, which culminates in voting booths in November, is already being bankrolled by political and corporate interests. Qualifying isn’t until July, and would-be contenders could still join the fray, but gloves have been touched and there’s no mistaking the sound of the opening bell.

Over in the blue corner, weighing in with hefty Beltway connections, is the princess from a Crescent City Camelot: incumbent Mary Landrieu. She’ll be portrayed as a liberal Democrat by her opponent, but she’s got the moxie, the money and the experience to battle even the thickest mud. Plus, her voting record puts her among the most conservative Democrats in Congress.

In the red corner after dropping the mantle of the Democratic Party is a folksy, church-going lawyer who prides himself on being a fiscal hawk: reborn conservative state Treasurer John Kennedy. Bolstered by a Louisiana electorate that leans Republican and national party leaders who adore him, this Madisonville maverick is ready for a rumble.

Insider prattling has the pair evenly matched. A December poll conducted by SurveyUSA and funded by D.C. newspaper Roll Call has Landrieu at about 46 percent and Kennedy at 42 percent.

A decision by voters may very well depend on the following factors:

1. Will Dardenne put on his gloves? No other candidate garnered more favor among voters in the 2007 primary than Secretary of State Jay Dardenne. He even bested Bobby Jindal, a fellow Republican, receiving 57,000 more votes than the popular new governor. Dardenne also is a charming counterpart to the hard-edged GOP prototype, and he polls well among women and crossover voters. That’s why many Louisiana Republicans are urging him to jump into this race. “I’m still thinking about it and plan on making a decision fairly soon,” Dardenne says. “But honestly, other people are thinking more about it for me than I am.”

While Dardenne’s supporters rightly argue that the former state senator from Baton Rouge is better suited to become governor one day, many also wonder whether Kennedy has truly changed his stripes. When he ran for the U.S. Senate against David Vitter in 2004, Kennedy was the avowed liberal in the race. Some GOP faithful are looking for a back-up candidate. The fact that Dardenne’s name is still active may reveal the trepidation some Louisiana Republicans have about coalescing around Kennedy, who was drafted by the national party and not local GOP leaders.

2. Where is Jindal’s corner?
Roger Villere Jr., chairman of the Louisiana Republican Party, confirms that Jindal has made federal elections a priority and the new governor wants to play a visible role. As for what that might mean in the way of endorsements and fundraising, Villere is tight-lipped. Jindal’s coattails are untested, but given his popularity and national profile, no Republican would refuse the governor’s help. 

Still, Jindal could sit this one out. If his rumored presidential ambitions are real, he’ll want to take credit for all the federal recovery money he can score. Thus, the question may be: Who is more capable of bringing home the bacon — a veteran in the majority party who knows how to work the system, or a freshman in the minority party hell-bent on fiscal restraint? On the other hand, helping Kennedy take a Senate seat from the GOP’s top target this year could prove that Jindal has what it takes to deliver for the party on the national playing field.

3. What role do the heavyweights play?
The presence of Hillary Clinton atop the Democratic ballot could hurt Landrieu. Many say she would turn out an angry, mostly-male electorate that wouldn’t otherwise vote, but would love to stick it to both Landrieu and Clinton. Barack Obama, on the other hand, could help Landrieu energize her Democratic base. Obama’s team has already expressed interest in spending money to compete in Louisiana.

On the GOP side, Sen. John McCain of Arizona could help Kennedy among crossover voters the senator is known to draw. Suburban housewives will play a big role, and aging Reagan Democrats and independent voters could be pulled in as well. “These aren’t you’re ordinary voters,” says Roy Fletcher, a Louisiana consultant who worked on McCain’s 2000 campaign. “And while Mary has always lived on crossover voters, I think that could change. I can already see it in fundraising. People who wouldn’t normally be with a Republican are getting onboard.”

4. Whose message will be a TKO?
Landrieu’s message will be simple: with Louisiana losing so much seniority because of GOP retirements, this is no time to trade a two-term senator in the majority party with a seat on the Appropriations and Commerce Committees for a freshman in the minority party with no key committee memberships. The only uncertainty is whether she will be able to stay on message. She has a lifetime of votes and quotes out there, which will give Republicans a lot of fodder. For example, a few watchdog groups (some with conservative ties) lambasted Landrieu for securing a $2 million earmark for a reading program run by lobbyists who donated to her 2002 campaign.

Kennedy’s message will be more complicated. For starters, he often comes across as more aloof than he really is. Furthermore, will he be able to craft a message that soothes the Christian base’s concerns about his Democratic roots? Sam Hanna Jr., publisher of The Ouachita Citizen, suggested in an editorial last month that Kennedy start writing checks to the “horde of political consultants in Louisiana who make their living manipulating Republican candidates and evangelical voters.” Kennedy’s state campaign gifted $1,000 to the North Cross United Methodist Church in November. Kennedy and his wife, Becky, are founding members of the Madisonville church. There’s still another $560,000 in Kennedy’s state account — but that cash can’t be used in a federal race. It remains to be seen whether Kennedy the treasurer (not the Senate candidate) can continue reaching out that way.

5. How much is in the purse?
Landrieu predictably dominates the money game with more than $4.1 million in her war chest at the end of 2007. Kennedy had $472,000, but he dropped nearly $380,000 — from his state account — on a media buy last year while running unopposed for treasurer. Meanwhile, party staffers say he is constantly on the phone and digging deep to raise money. Kennedy’s success in that effort is unknown until new reports are filed, but Villere isn’t concerned. The national GOP spigot hasn’t been turned on yet. “I think at the proper time there will be plenty of money,” he says. “Right now it’s still early.”

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