BATON ROUGE, Louisiana — U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu's bid for a fourth term could be determined by how the remaining undecided voters view the Democratic senator's longevity in Washington.
Do they consider her 18 years a power-building time that gives her significant clout, beneficial to her state and its needs? Or do they consider her years in the nation's capital too much time disconnected from home, where she's developed a sense of entitlement at odds with the public service of her office?
Landrieu is using her years in Congress as the chief selling point of her campaign ahead of the Nov. 4 election, particularly her ascension to chairmanship of the Senate energy committee, a position of influence over policies significant to Louisiana with its rich energy resources.
She's described her years of seniority — what she called "18 years standing in line" — as crucial to helping Louisiana, downplaying her party affiliation and trying to distance herself from Washington politics.
"It's Louisiana's clout. Let's not give it up," Landrieu has said repeatedly.
But she's running into the dilemma of how long is too long, getting hit with the age-old criticism of becoming too much a creature of Washington, the type of attack many long-term politicians face after they've spent years in Congress.
Landrieu's main Republican challenger, U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy, discards the senator's clout. He says it doesn't matter because she's aligned with a Democratic Party that is out of step with Louisiana values and on the wrong side of issues.
He's framed his campaign effort as necessary to return the U.S. Senate to Republican control, a switch he says more closely represents Louisiana views.
Republican candidate Rob Maness, a tea party favorite who appears to be running a distant third in the race, uses the Washington insider tag to criticize both Landrieu and Cassidy. He says Congress is dysfunctional and the only way to improve the situation is to elect people outside of the Washington establishment.
But Maness has little money to spread his attacks on Cassidy, and Republican leaders are laser-focused on bashing Landrieu. She is targeted in a GOP effort to gain six Senate seats and retake the majority in the chamber.
In their drumbeat of criticism against Landrieu, Republican officials questioned her qualification to run for re-election, saying she lives full-time in Washington.
A lawsuit challenging Landrieu's residency qualifications was dismissed, and the senator's campaign called it a frivolous lawsuit designed to distract from serious policy debates.
But District Judge Wilson Fields threw out the case on a technicality, ruling the lawsuit by Republican state Rep. Paul Hollis was premature and could be filed only after an election is held. The judge didn't make a decision on whether Landrieu, who owns a $2.5 million home in Washington, lives in Louisiana.
That leaves enough wiggle room for Republicans.
Landrieu says she lives with her parents in New Orleans when in Louisiana and is registered to vote with that address. The house where Landrieu's parents live is owned by a trust in which the senator, her eight siblings and their parents share equally.
But Republicans have used the residency question to try to define Landrieu as detached from her home state and too closely allied with Democratic leaders who are unpopular in Louisiana.
"Louisiana deserves a senator who lives in our state and is committed to our state, like Bill Cassidy, not someone like Mary Landrieu for whom calling Louisiana home is nothing more than a convenient excuse to continue living the high life as a Washington, D.C., insider," Republican Party of Louisiana Executive Director Jason Dore said after the court ruling.
Louisiana's lone Democrat in statewide office, Landrieu has survived such criticism in her previous elections, with her family's strong New Orleans roots, her list of achievements in Congress and her more than three decades in elected offices representing Louisiana.
"Mary Landrieu's name is synonymous with Louisiana," Landrieu campaign manager Adam Sullivan wrote in a recent fundraising email.
But in a race expected to be decided by a tight margin, Landrieu's political future could hinge on whether voters no longer view her years inside the Beltway as useful influence and instead consider the time an out-of-touch detachment.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Melinda Deslatte covers Louisiana politics for The Associated Press.
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