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Tea Party favourite Rob Maness, left, Republican Congressman Bill Cassidy, centre, and Democrat Senator Mary Landrieu participate in a Senate debate at Louisiana State University, Wednesday.Gerald Herbert/The Associated Press

The battle for control of the Senate – and the soul of the Republican party – goes through Louisiana.

As a deluge of campaign events and TV attack ads makes clear, the stakes are enormous in the Pelican State. The odd three-way battle here for U.S. senator, one that very likely will go to a December runoff, is one of the tightest races in the country and an important test for the fractured GOP.

"The Senate's for the taking," said Jason Doré, the state's Republican party executive director. "A month from now, this could be ground zero for a presidential-type campaign confined to one state, because the balance of the Senate is going to be in play."

Republicans need to pick up six seats in next Tuesday's midterm elections to wrest control of the Senate from the Democrats, and the now-deadlocked Louisiana race could be decisive. But beyond the massive short-term stakes, a look at the Louisiana race from ground level also reveals the myriad fissures that have, in some cases, turned the GOP against itself – threatening the party's long-term viability.

Unlike most races across the country, there are two Republicans running against the incumbent Democratic senator. The mainstream GOP candidate, Congressman Bill Cassidy, is now in a statistical tie with Sen. Mary Landrieu, who is running on her seniority and influential chairmanship of the Senate committee on energy and natural resources. The wild card is a second Republican – retired Air Force Colonel Rob Maness – who is running under banner of the party's conservative Tea Party mavericks. The message of his campaign is that the GOP has failed to field a truly conservative candidate.

Col. Maness has no serious shot at winning the race. But he has made waves. In a somewhat bizarre campaign appearance on his behalf, Tea Party icon Sarah Palin gave Col. Maness her endorsement. Ms. Palin got the chance to pet a Louisiana gator.

He is also still polling at upward of 10 per cent – a strong enough showing to alter the entire landscape of the Louisiana race. Under the state's rules, if no single candidate gains 50 per cent or more of the vote in the first round, the top two candidates go to a runoff election. That means, come December, a Louisiana runoff could determine the balance of power in Washington.

Louisiana has undergone one of the more dramatic political changes in the U.S. It was a once safe state for Democrats – until as recently as a decade ago, they had a lock on the governorship and almost all the congressional and Senate seats – but now tilts sharply Republican.

This reflects the shift that took place generally in the South, where the Democratic party lost ground to the GOP because it is no longer seen as the party of small rather than big government. But in Louisiana, the shift is also attributed to the destructive force of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 that drove many people, especially from traditionally Democrat-friendly areas like New Orleans, out of the state.

"Katrina offset the demographics and politics of the state,' said Robert Mann, a professor at Louisiana State University and a former communications director for the state's last Democratic governor, Kathleen Blanco, who left office in 2008. "Louisiana was changing like the rest of the south, but I think Katrina was a tipping point."

As in other congressional and Senate races across the country, the Republicans are focused on associating their Democratic opponent with the unpopular President Barack Obama. (Ms. Landrieu is also attacked in billboards paid for by conservative groups who oppose abortion rights as "too extreme for Louisiana.") And Ms. Landrieu has made some missteps in responding.

This week, asked by a television interviewer to explain Mr. Obama's poor ratings in the South, she said one reason is his energy policies and another is his race.

"One of the reasons that the President's so unpopular is because he put the moratorium on off-shore drilling," said Ms. Landrieu. Then she added: "I'll be very very honest with you. The South has not always been the friendliest place for African-Americans… It's not always been a good place for women to present ourselves. It's more of a conservative place. So we've had to work a little bit harder on that, but you know, the people trust me, I believe."

Mr. Cassidy and Col. Maness immediately criticized her as essentially insulting Louisianans.

Still, the presence of two Republican candidates from two different wings of the GOP signals longer-term problems for the GOP when it can't unite against a common Democratic opponent. While a focus on social issues like abortion might be important to some Tea Party supporters and evangelical religious voters, it does little to endear the GOP to the demographic groups from which it hopes to draw its future membership – groups such as fiscally conservative but socially liberal Millennials, or libertarians who want the government out of as many aspects of private life as possible.

"At some point, they're going to have to govern, and that's when they'll have to face some of the tensions between militants and isolationists, between those who support tax cutting versus a balanced budget," said Brian Brox, an associate professor of American politics at Tulane University in New Orleans. "If they can't do that, two years from now voters can look back at their majorities and either reward them or punish them."