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Big Easy heads into a runoff race

Mayor Ray Nagin faces Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu on May 20. Will the focus be on issues or race?

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New Orleanians sent a clear message Saturday that they want experienced leadership in their time of crisis when they sent both incumbent Mayor C. Ray Nagin and Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu to a runoff on May 20.

"Voters are saying that they want someone capable of operating a government, someone who is steady at the helm," says Brian Brox, an assistant professor of political science at Tulane University in New Orleans. "And considering the challenge to the city right now, I don't think that's a fact that should surprise anyone."

There's a lot of work yet to be done in the next month, political analysts agree. But the dynamics of the mayoral race will change dramatically.

"It will be a whole new campaign for the runoff," says Silas Lee, a New Orleans-based pollster who has worked for Nagin in prior elections.

Voting-rights advocates, for instance, will have another month to organize those who are still displaced - many of whom are African-American. One group, the Industrial Areas Foundation, is working on its goal of signing up 35,000 voters by May 20.

The primary election was the result of an unprecedented effort by the secretary of State to reach voters, half of whom have not yet returned to the city. Of the city's almost 300,000 registered voters, more than 20,000 cast ballots early by mail, fax, or at satellite voting stations around the state - 10 times a normal election turnout.

With all the precincts reporting, Mayor Nagin took 38 percent of the vote, short of the majority needed to avoid a runoff. His closest rival, Lt. Governor Landrieu, took 29 percent.

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