While the nation watches New Orleans, racial politics is predominating.
In the primary, none of the leading candidates offered a compelling vision of change, and voters could not see clear policy proposals to vote for. As a result, they voted along racial lines.
New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin finished first with 38 percent of the vote, with his base in the black community.
It seems like blacks are willing to let Nagin "come on home." This is what he has been trying to do, albeit clumsily, for some time now. It might just work, since he does not seem to be unresponsive to a public that is crying to be heard.
He signaled this attitude when he said that New Orleans should return to being a "chocolate city," and rejected some of the recommendations from his rebuilding commission.
Whites voted largely for Mitch Landrieu (29 percent), Ron Forman (17 percent) and Rob Couhig (10 percent). White voters have an animus toward Nagin because he is in favor of continued black control. They view his program as incompatible with their interests. Thus, whites will probably give Landrieu most of their vote in the runoff.
With 62 percent of the voters going against Nagin in the primary and white turnout at about 50 percent compared to 30 percent for blacks, Landrieu appears to be in a good position to win.
That is, in part, because of low voter turnout of blacks, which is one manifestation of all the things critics of the election were voicing about the formidable barriers to voting. The higher turnout of whites was preordained. Many of the precinct voting stations that were changed were in the black community, which meant that, disproportionately, whites could vote in relatively familiar voting stations.
Though the Justice Department approved the election system, thousands of ballots were invalidated because of either voter ID problems or the late receipt of absentee ballots. This system must now be corrected for the runoff.
Most importantly, the right to vote must be expanded. Louisiana Secretary of State Al Ater says he cannot order other states to set up satellite voting stations for displaced New Orleans voters, and the federal government has taken no action. But he has made no public formal request for satellite stations to be established in either other states or by the Bush administration.
The state and federal governments need to take responsibility to expand the right of displaced citizens to vote. The 30 percent turnout of blacks may look like a minor miracle in hindsight. There will have to be an even bigger miracle if Nagin is to stand a chance in the runoff.
Working against Nagin, the low turnout could also mean that those who have been displaced, especially those outside Louisiana, have not seen or heard the messages that would make them take the trouble to vote.
There is much riding on the nature of the policy proposals that each candidate places before the electorate in this runoff.
In the debate over "change," the word has become code among whites in New Orleans for the death of the black political regime. As one white member of the state legislature said on the floor with most blacks gone, "Reconstruction is finally over."
But Reconstruction made New Orleans what it was -- a unique city with a cultural presentation like no other, a legacy to be preserved.
The rebuilding process could place a black mayor in a position to influence more economic resources than any other black politician in America.
But has white America ever trusted that role to a black man?
The answer to this question may ultimately determine the outcome of the election.
Ron Walters is director of the African American Leadership Institute, and professor of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland, College Park. His latest books are, "White Nationalism, Black Interests" (Wayne State University Press, 2003) and "Freedom Is Not Enough" (Rowman and Littlefield Press, 2005). Walters is also an expert and contributor to Katrina Information Network (www.KatrinaAction.org). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.