A fix down on the Bayou?

The GOP's very first caucus this election year was supposed to be down in Louisiana. Its cancellation has spawned allegations that the Bush campaign pulled a fast one.

Published January 19, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Sure, Gary Bauer wanted to be shaking hands and kissing babies last week, which is what he was up to in Iowa, but he wanted to be doing it down in Dixie -- in Louisiana, to be precise.

That didn't happen, however, because last month, Louisiana Gov. Mike Foster suddenly canceled the state's Jan. 15 caucus, citing the likelihood of a low voter turnout, which would have been an embarrassment to the state.

When Foster made his announcement, Bauer smelled a rat. Though he is running dead last in the crowded Republican presidential field, according to a recent CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll, Bauer had been hoping that conservative Louisiana would offer his sagging campaign a lift.

Furthermore, although only three of the six GOP candidates--Bauer, Sen. Orrin Hatch and Alan Keyes-- had planned to compete in Louisiana, the caucus might have had an influence on the outcome in the much more important Iowa caucus on Jan. 24.

Bauer immediately accused rival George W. Bush of playing "inside political games" to get the Louisiana caucuses canceled, thereby denying Bauer a potential platform for his ultra-conservative Christian beliefs.

"In my view, that's the worst of all worlds: 'Let's get real tough when it comes to playing inside political games, but let's fail when we give a governing vision to people,'" Bauer said, in an obvious swipe at the front-runner. Bauer added that the caucuses were canceled because the governor of Louisiana wanted them canceled, and "the governor of Louisiana is firmly in the governor's [Bush's] camp."

For its part, the Bush campaign denied any involvement in the decision.

Foster, who indeed is a strong Bush supporter, has openly complained that the state's party is controlled by the Christian right.

Meanwhile, by canceling its caucus, Louisiana removed the best chance for voters in the deep South to have some influence over the presidential race before Super Tuesday, March 14, when most of the primaries in the region will be held.

Mike Francis, Louisiana's state Republican chairman, who backed the idea of a January caucus, says what has happened is bad for the region. "I think there is no early voice in the South to select a Republican nominee from a conservative group," says Francis. "We were on the right track and doing something for the South."

Like Bauer, Francis blames Bush for hurting the caucus movement when he "wanted to follow the old traditional route through Iowa. We were dealing with prominent Republicans and it's hard to hold the line against those forces."

Francis vows it will be different next time, and that in 2004, Bush won't stand a chance of influencing a Louisiana caucus, even if he is the president. "Democracy didn't have its will of the way in this," says Francis, who plans on leading a caucus crusade in the state during the next four years. "We got beat by the biggest and best in America. I don't like it -- at all."

But Francis may be fighting an uphill battle. Even if the Louisiana GOP eventually agrees to try an early caucus again, how many politicians are going to take the time and money to campaign in a state that may -- at the last minute -- cancel its invitation?

By Suzi Parker

Suzi Parker is an Arkansas writer.

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George W. Bush Religion Republican Party