BATON ROUGE, La. — From the outset, Republicans saw Gov. John Bel Edwards of Louisiana as vulnerable in his bid for a second term. He is a conservative Democrat — but a Democrat nonetheless — in a state and region where his party is often a disqualifier in statewide races.
And to topple him, Republicans have mounted a robust opposition that has centered on the force of President Trump, who has dropped into Louisiana twice in the last two weeks to mobilize his supporters.
How well that works will be seen after the runoff Saturday between Mr. Edwards and Eddie Rispone, the Baton Rouge businessman who has cloaked himself in Mr. Trump’s popularity and is largely relying on it to win.
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The race, which has narrowed into a virtual dead heat since the state’s all-party jungle primary last month, essentially hinges on Mr. Trump’s gravitational pull for Republicans and whether Mr. Edwards, who is relatively popular, can overcome the president’s efforts to paint him as a liberal tied to national Democrats.
In the rally this week, Mr. Trump acknowledged as much, saying, “You’ve got to give me a big win, O.K.?” For Mr. Trump, the stakes went up considerably this week when his chosen candidate in Kentucky, Gov. Matt Bevin, conceded his race, which also hinged on whether he could rely on President Trump’s clout to win.
Mr. Edwards is “facing an opponent that has replaced what he hoped would be a referendum on his own incumbency with a narrative that is, more or less, a referendum on Donald Trump,” said Mary-Patricia Wray, a political consultant who has worked for Democrats and Republicans, including Mr. Edwards during his 2015 campaign. If Mr. Edwards wins, she said, in a race that has been nationalized as a test for Mr. Trump, it would be “proof that authenticity still counts for half a percent in red Louisiana.”
In the state’s nonpartisan primary in October, Mr. Edwards came up shy of the 50 percent threshold needed to clinch his re-election, receiving 46 percent of the vote. Mr. Rispone, with 27 percent, came in second place by edging past Representative Ralph Abraham, also a Republican.
Throughout the campaign, Mr. Edwards, the only Democratic governor currently holding office in the Deep South, has shined a spotlight on his conservative bona fides, like his support for a state law barring abortion after the pulsing of what becomes the fetus’s heart can be detected. He has also campaigned on his role in closing a $2 billion deficit he inherited from his Republican predecessor, Bobby Jindal, and has argued that Mr. Rispone, by pursuing aggressive tax cuts, would put Louisiana back in the same place.
And he has distanced himself from national Democrats. One of his most influential megawatt backers has not been anyone from Washington, but instead Ed Orgeron, Louisiana State University’s football coach. (“I know the state of Louisiana believes in him just like a championship quarterback,” the coach said at a fund-raiser in April.)
Mr. Rispone, who with his brother founded an industrial engineering, construction and maintenance company in Baton Rouge, has tied his fortunes almost entirely to Mr. Trump, allowing the president to dominate the campaign. When Mr. Rispone addressed supporters at an election night gathering in October, he started his speech by saying he had just gotten off the phone with the president, leading the crowd to chant “Trump! Trump! Trump!” Mr. Rispone’s first two ads in the runoff showed footage of Mr. Trump but none of the candidate.
On Thursday, Mr. Trump traveled to Bossier City, La., near Shreveport in the northern part of the state, to renew his attack on Mr. Edwards and urge the crowd to “send a message to the corrupt Democrats in Washington” by voting for Mr. Rispone. He reiterated his support for Mr. Rispone on Saturday with multiple tweets.
So far, the election has had heavy turnout. Louisiana’s secretary of state, Kyle Ardoin, said that he expects a turnout of 51 percent, compared with 40 percent in 2015.
Michael Derouen, who works in seafood sales, described both candidates as “pretty decent.” But ultimately, he sided with Mr. Rispone, he said, because he believed a change might jolt Louisiana forward, particularly in terms of boosting business and job opportunities.
“He’s not just a politician,” Mr. Derouen said just after voting at a fire station in East Baton Rouge Parish. “He’s a businessman, which opens the door for us and the state. We want an all-around guy, not just a politician.”
But many voters acknowledged the influence Mr. Trump has had in the race. Some said he could motivate both sides to come out. The Rev. A. J. Johnson was among those who said Mr. Trump would turn out his opponents as well as his fans.
“This is about the power of the vote and about people in this state standing up and standing together to do what’s right for this state,” Mr. Johnson, 54, said, standing in the parking lot of a grocery store in Baton Rouge. “It’s not about what a president thinks is right for this state.”
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