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By Evan Halper, Tribune Washington Bureau (MCT)

WASHINGTON — Embattled Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress, has struggled throughout her re-election campaign this fall to cope with the low approval ratings of President Barack Obama, whose signature energy and health care policies are widely disliked in the state.

She gave her GOP opponents some political red meat this week when she expounded on why Obama is so unpopular with her constituents. Landrieu said the president’s race is a factor.

“I’ll be very, very honest with you,” she said in an interview with NBC News that aired Thursday. “The South has not always been the friendliest place for African-Americans. It’s been a difficult time for the president to present himself in a very positive light as a leader.”

Landrieu said Southern voters are also hard on female candidates.

While noting that the South remains a socially conservative region where white male candidates have an edge may seem ho-hum, Landrieu’s remarks could help mobilize the voters she most needs to cast ballots, African-American liberals.

Most analysts agree that all paths to victory for her include a large turnout of African-American Democrats.

Louisiana Republicans grabbed her comments to appeal to voters who might take umbrage in a closely watched, tight race that could determine which political party controls the Senate next year.

“When under our Constitution we work through the political process to change directions, we’re called racist,” Rep. Bill Cassidy, Landrieu’s leading GOP opponent, said in an interview with Fox News.

Noting unhappiness among Louisianians about Obamacare and the administration’s failure to approve a major oil pipeline from the Canadian tar sands to the Gulf Coast, Cassidy said Landrieu “should focus more on policies instead of insulting us.”

Gov. Bobby Jindal, also a Republican, wrote on Twitter that the remarks were “a major insult by Senator Landrieu to the people of Louisiana.”

Jindal went on: “Obama’s policies, which Mary supports, are unpopular here, and the other 49 states, because they are ill advised, liberal, and don’t work. His administration has also proven to be incompetent. Trying to blame it on race is ridiculous.”

Polls suggest that none of the nine candidates in the race, including two-term incumbent Landrieu, is likely to cross the 50 percent threshold needed under Louisiana’s quirky law to claim victory on election night.

That would trigger a runoff on Dec. 6 between the top two vote-getters, widely expected to be Landrieu and Cassidy. A rematch, along with a similar potential runoff in Georgia, could leave Washington in suspense after Tuesday’s election about which party will hold the Senate majority next year.

Photo: Talk News Radio Service via Flickr

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