David Duke. It's a name that conjures Louisiana's not-so-distant political past and even darker images of white hoods, crosses ablaze and a face that's smooth and shiny and morphed. If our elected body politic has a boogey man, it's David Duke. Lately he's been pulled from the depths for a starring role in the 2010 U.S. Senate election, which is already well underway.

  While U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-Metairie, stayed mum last week as to whether Tangipahoa Justice of the Peace Keith Bardwell should resign after refusing to marry interracial couples, Vitter's challenger, Congressman Charlie Melancon, D-Napoleonville, called for action and the Louisiana Democratic Party lashed out. Party flacks circulated an email containing newspaper editorials decrying Bardwell and Vitter. The bomb was in the subject line: "David Duke's Successor."

  It's a clear sign that Democrats are trying to energize their traditional African-American base, which is nothing new. It's also a sign that Vitter may be shoring up his own base among rural, conservative white men. But if you really want to learn about what could be the most significant swing vote in next year's Senate election, forget about David Duke and think Queen-Bee-Trumps-Wunderkind with a touch of Military Mary.

  Think women voters.

  Women voters could be crucial to Melancon's two biggest hurdles: polling and fundraising, which are two serious hurdles to clear. Earlier this month, Vitter posted a 10-point lead over Melancon in a widely reported poll — and a two-to-one money advantage after the third quarter.

  Melancon also trailed 47-35 in a Southern Media and Opinion Research poll released last week. Among women voters, the gap closed to 44-39 percent, with 17 percent undecided, and Melancon still in the second spot. The female factor, however, seems promising enough for Democrats, who plan to target women next year.

  Former Gov. Kathleen Blanco established a sophisticated formula in 2003 when she bested now-Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, by roughly 55,000 votes. Blanco was trailing Jindal in tracking polls by about 10 points during the final 10 days of the contest, but she gained ground and pulled off a shocking victory. Last-minute media was female-centric with women actors pointedly discussing health care issues and Jindal. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party mailed a piece to women voters explaining Jindal's opposition to all abortions, including cases of incest, rape and to save the life of the mother.

  Melancon's campaign is already working to chip away at Vitter's edges. For starters, Vitter's admitted "sin" and his links to a D.C.-based escort service and one-time madam who committed suicide do no favors for the junior senator. But Vitter also has votes that can be singled out, such as his recent opposition to the Lilly Ledbetter Act of 2009, which supports equal pay.

  More recently, Vitter has taken it on the chin for voting against the so-called Franken Amendment. It's now part of the Defense Department Appropriations Bill and it's meant to protect women's right to report a rape. It also would bar taxpayer dollars from going to government contractors who violate that policy. According to published reports, a woman working in Iraq encountered such a problem in 2005 and was denied medical treatment by her employer.

  While the House version of the bill doesn't include the Franken Amendment, Melancon has already vowed to get it tacked on — if he can.

  As for money — and access to centrist women — U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-New Orleans, established a model for town hall meetings in 2008, a model that could prove advantageous for Melancon. Her smooth move to the center, buoyed by GOP-like stances on energy and pro-military votes, is something else Democratic operatives have studied.

  But Landrieu stands on the same rocky foundation as Melancon. Last week's Southern Media and Opinion Research poll showed that Landrieu's job performance ratings had dropped since the spring. She's now at 54 percent compared to 61 percent in March. An analysis of the poll by Southern Media attributed the trend "to President [Barack] Obama's lower popularity and, in particular, her vote for the president's stimulus package. Polling shows Landrieu's job-performance figures are likely to continue falling if she votes for any Democratic health-care bill."

  That makes Melancon's upcoming votes and statements on Obama's health care plan even dicier. Blanco was able to use the topic of health care to get her past Jindal in 2003, but the political environment was dramatically different then.

  Melancon's most noticeable shortcoming with regard to his women-outreach strategy is, of course, his gender. Fortunately for him, his wife Peachy is a real Southern Dame. She's been a silent, yet visible partner during Melancon's time in office — and she has a quick wit and firm grasp of the issues. Look for her on the trail soon.

  The emphasis on women voters, along with the hyped references to David Duke, may stoke another Democratic theme: civil rights. In a campaign that promises one candidate running on conservative morals and family values and the other running against Barack Obama, it's one of the few topics that may resonate. Otherwise, the race comes down to two white, over-45 men from generally the same neck of south Louisiana who tend to agree on the Big Issues more times than not.

Jeremy Alford can be reached at jeremy@jeremyalford.com.