As the U.S. Senate race between David Vitter and Charlie Melancon continues to ripen, women voters are emerging as a key constituency to watch. David Duke. It’s a name that conjures up Louisiana’s not-so-distant political past and, even darker, images of white hoods, crosses ablaze and a face that’s smooth and shiny and morphed. If our elected body politic has a bogey man, it’s David Duke. And he’s been pulled from the depths for a starring role in the 2010 U.S. Senate election, which is already well under way and kicking.

When Sen. David Vitter, R-Metairie, stayed mum last week on whether Tangipahoa Justice of the Peace Keith Bardwell should resign after refusing to marry interracial couples, and his challenger, Congressman Charlie Melancon, D-Napoleonville, did call for action, the Louisiana Democratic Party lashed out. Party flacks circulated an e-mail containing newspaper editorials decrying Bardwell and Vitter. The bomb was in the subject line: “David Duke’s Successor.”

It’s a clear sign Democrats are trying to energize their traditional African-American base, which isn’t anything new. It’s also a sign that Vitter may be shoring up his own base of white men. But if you really want to learn about what could be the most significant swing vote in next year’s Senate election, forget about David Duke and think Queen-Bee-Trumps-Wunderkind with a touch of Military Mary.  

Women voters could be crucial to Melancon’s two biggest hurdles: polling and fundraising, which are two serious hurdles to clear. Earlier this month, Vitter posted a 10-point lead over Melancon in a widely-reported poll and a 2-to-1 money advantage following the third quarter.

Melancon also trailed 47-35 in a Southern Media and Opinion Research poll released last week. Among women voters, the gap closed to 44-39, with 17 percent undecided and Melancon still in the second spot. The female factor, however, seems promising enough for Democrats, who plan on heavily targeting women next year.

Former Gov. Kathleen Blanco established a sophisticated formula in 2003 when she bested now-Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, by roughly 55,000 votes. Blanco was trailing Jindal in tracking polls by about 10 points during the final week of the contest but slowly gained ground and managed a shocker. Last-minute media were female-centric with women actors pointedly discussing health care issues and Jindal, and the Democratic Party dropped a mail piece to women voters explaining Jindal’s opposition to all abortions, including cases of incest, rape and to save the life of the mother. 

Melancon’s campaign is already working to chip away at Vitter’s edges. For starters, Vitter’s admitted “sin” that’s linked him to a D.C.-based escort service and one-time madam who committed suicide do absolutely no favors for the junior senator. But there are also votes to single out, like Vitter’s opposition to the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, which supports equal pay.

More recently, Vitter has taken it on the chin for voting against the so-called Franken Amendment. It’s now part of the Defense Department Appropriations Bill, and it’s meant to protect women from being prevented from seeking legal recourse for a rape they may have suffered. It would also make sure that no taxpayer dollars went to government contractors involved in such a situation. According to published reports, a woman working in Iraq encountered such a problem in 2005 and was denied medical treatment by her employer.

While the House version of the bill doesn’t include the Franken Amendment, Melancon has already vowed to get it inserted — if he can.

As for money, and access to centrist and Republican-leaning women, U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-New Orleans, established a model of women town hall meetings in 2008 that could prove advantageous for Melancon. Her smooth move to the center, buoyed by GOP-like stances on energy and pro-military votes, is something else Democratic operatives have studied.

But Landrieu is on the same rocky foundation Melancon now stands upon. Last week’s Southern Media and Opinion Research poll showed that Landrieu’s job performance ratings had dropped since the spring. She’s now at 54 percent compared to 61 percent in March. An analysis of the poll by Southern Media attributed the trend “to President [Barack] Obama’s lower popularity and, in particular, her vote for the president’s stimulus package. Polling shows Landrieu’s job-performance figures are likely to continue falling if she votes for any Democratic health-care bill.”

That makes Melancon’s upcoming votes and statements on Obama’s health care plan even the more treacherous. Blanco was able to use the topic of health care to knock Jindal off his perch in 2003, although the political environment was dramatically different.

Melancon’s most noticeable negative for this women-outreach strategy is, of course, that he’s not a woman. But thankfully for the campaign, his wife, Peachy, is a woman, or, more appropriately, a Southern Dame. She’s been a silent yet visible partner during Melancon’s time in office — but with a quick wit and grasp on the issues, she may end up on the trail sooner than later.

When coupled with all the hyped connections to David Duke, the emphasis on women voters may also be telling of an underlying theme: civil rights. In a campaign that promises one candidate running on morals and family values, and the other running against Barack Obama, it’s among the few topics that can resonate and stand out. That’s going to be tough to find next year, especially if the major contenders remain two white, over-45 men from generally the same neck of south Louisiana who tend to agree on the big issues more times than not

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