Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) is heading into her third straight reelection campaign as a prime GOP target, but national and local Democrats argue her past battle scars have made her the most formidable of the party's vulnerable 2014 incumbents.
Even as political forces out of her control appear to be gathering, Landrieu has remained competitive in several recent GOP polls of the Louisiana race, and this week posted a 10-point lead in a survey from the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling.
Her most prominent opponent is Rep. Bill Cassidy (R), a third-term Republican congressman.
Democratic strategist Donna Brazile said Landrieu is the strongest among Sens. Kay Hagan (N.C.), Mark Begich (Alaska) and Mark Pryor (Ark.) — the other Democrats facing reelection in GOP-leaning states.
“I think she is the least vulnerable of the so-called red state Democrats,” said Brazile, who worked on Landrieu’s 2002 reelection campaign.
Early polling supports Brazile's view. Though Landrieu lagged Cassidy in one GOP poll, she remains above water in terms of her approval rating, and she topped Cassidy in yet another survey of the race.
Begich only led GOP establishment pick Mead Treadwell, Alaska's lieutenant governor, by 4 points in the most recent Public Policy Polling survey of the Alaska race, and operatives believe the atmosphere in the state to be even more toxic for a Democrat.
A handful of GOP polls of the Arkansas Senate race out this month and last put Pryor either behind his likely GOP opponent, Rep. Tom Cotton (R), or ahead by only 2 points.
Hagan likely faces an easier political environment and a weaker Republican opponent than Landrieu, and many Democrats consider her circumstances to be the most favorable of the four red-state Democrats up for reelection.
But Hagan is running her first reelection fight, and her ability to beat off a Republican onslaught remains untested.
Landrieu, in contrast, has been tested time and time again since she was first elected in 1996 and each time emerged victorious.
Republicans point to the closeness of the Louisiana race this far out from 2014 as evidence she'll finally meet defeat in November.
In Cassidy, Landrieu is also likely facing her strongest opponent yet, and Louisiana is the most conservative it's been in recent memory. If the public outcry against ObamaCare grows, and the rollout of the law yields bad press for the president, Landrieu's bid for reelection could suffer.
But those familiar with her campaigning style say she's ready for the fight.
“She’s always been a tough campaigner, and she's always been one to not take any campaign for granted,” said Bob Mann, former press secretary to Democratic Sen. John Breaux (La.).
Mann said Landrieu has honed her management skills over a series of tough races and believes her ability to run a tight ship will help keep her campaign on track.
“She's going to work extremely hard and expect people around her to work just as hard. She's very exacting and demanding, and so she's always going to have a really good team put together, and they’ll know what's expected of them,” he said.
Running a gaffe-free, on-message, smooth campaign will be imperative for Landrieu, who is facing an electorate that voted for GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney with nearly 60 percent support.
That means Cassidy starts out with a clear partisan advantage, despite the fact that Democrats have a registration lead in the state.
But political analyst Jennifer Duffy, who writes for the nonpartisan Cook Report, said Landrieu had learned from earlier races to get out ahead of her opponent and define him early, something she says she expects Landrieu to do this time around.
“She was very lucky that her campaign in 2002 ended up in a runoff because she didn’t run a good campaign that cycle. She's learned a lot of lessons from that, and it's gotten considerably better,” Duffy said.
Landrieu narrowly defeated Republican Suzanne Haik Terrell that year.
“She didn’t do a lot of opposition research on her opponent, so she hadn’t really defined her really well, and Democrats had to do a lot of work in a very short period of time to push her over the edge,” she added.
Mann suggested Landrieu's success in defining Cassidy — before he has the chance to do so — will be the earliest indicator of where Landrieu’s campaign stands going into reelection, independent of polls or fundraising totals.
“People don’t know Cassidy. The question in my mind is, at what point does Cassidy tell his story, or does Landrieu tell his story before him?” he said.