Union Tribune

December 21, 2002 

Validity of Mexican story still at issue | It helped Landrieu win in Louisiana 


WASHINGTON -- There's still debate about whether a Mexican newspaper story
about a sugar deal was valid, but there's no debate about the fact it
helped U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu win a tough fight for re-election in

But first, some background. In the tense final days of the runoff election
in Louisiana, Republican challenger Suzanne Terrell inched ahead in the
polls, thanks to President Bush's high-profile campaigning on her behalf.

Then Landrieu, a Democrat, got word of a Mexican newspaper report that she
used in an advertising blitz to turn the Republican strategy on its head.

It also apparently turned the election around and carried Landrieu to

In a case study on campaign management, the election appeared to turn on a
controversy about what rising Mexican sugar imports would mean to
Louisiana's rural economy.

Terrell's keynote campaign message was that she would be unswervingly loyal
to President Bush, a reliable partner in advancing his administration's

Harnessing the truism that all politics is local, Landrieu used the story
out of Mexico to package Terrell's pledge as a betrayal of jobs in
Louisiana's $1.7 billion sugar industry.

In late November, the Mexico City daily Reforma reported that U.S. and
Mexican government negotiators had reached a deal that would double
Mexico's sugar exports to the United States.

Two weeks later, the Bush administration still insists there is no deal,
although other sources lend credibility to the story in Reforma.

"We are still negotiating," Ricardo Reyes, a spokesman for the U.S. Trade
Representative, said yesterday.

Another government source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Reforma
had correctly reported the substance of a draft agreement.

"Unfortunately the draft was leaked," he said. "We certainly didn't want it
coming out before the election."

The source said the deal made sense for several reasons. For example, he
said, it would honor a sugar commitment the United States had made during
NAFTA negotiations, but that had been somewhat confused by a subsequent
"side deal."

The deal would also make Mexican markets more accessible to U.S. exporters
of corn syrup, the source said. And it would make Mexico less likely to
look for a way out of NAFTA-established commitments to remove tariffs on
U.S. farm exports.

That issue has become politically charged in Mexico, where farmers say they
cannot compete against the heavily subsidized products of more efficient
U.S. farms.

In the closing days of the election, the Reforma report became the key to a
Landrieu ad campaign, that was spun into sugarcoated electoral gold.

"Mexican newspapers reveal a secret deal with Washington to flood America
with Mexican sugar," a Landrieu pitchman gravely intoned as eerie music
played in the background. "As Louisiana jobs were sold out, Suzie Terrell
was silent."

The ad closed with a killer clincher about Terrell's loyalty to Bush:
"Louisiana doesn't need a rubber stamp. We need a senator who will put
Louisiana first."

Jim Nugent, vice chairman of the Louisiana Republican Party, recalls the ad
as if it was a nightmarish, multiheaded beast from a Louisiana swamp.

"It came out of nowhere. It was on television and radio continuously,"
Nugent said. "Every time you turned around, there it was."

The Terrell campaign scrambled to deny the ad.

Bush administration officials insisted that the story was untrue.

"We need a senator who doesn't rely on Mexican newspapers for the facts on
what the president of the United States is doing on trade policies,"
Terrell huffed.

But the message stuck. Workers in an industry that had already been
battered in recent weeks by a hurricane and a tropical storm were feeling

Landrieu's marketing succeeded with its message that she would oppose the
president if that's what it took to stand up for Louisiana.