SENATE FORUM

Pictured from left to right are U.S. Senatorial candidates, John Fleming, John Neely Kennedy, Caroline Fayard, Foster Campbell and Charles Boustany Jr. during a forum at the campus of Louisiana Tech University on Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2016.

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO BY LOUISIANA TECH UNIVERSITY

Baton Rouge pollster John Couvillon predicts “this is the week.”

After a year of befuddled campaigning for the U.S. Senate, one of the candidates will break out and define, at last, the race to replace retiring U.S. Sen. David Vitter, he says.

Good thing, too, since early voting ends Tuesday and the Nov. 8 election is eight days away.

Three independent polls last week separately showed that State Treasurer John N. Kennedy maintains a slight lead over fellow Republican Charles Boustany, the Lafayette-based congressman who represents Acadiana, and utility regulator Foster Campbell, the Bossier Parish Democrat who represents north Louisiana on the Public Service Commission. Republican Congressman John Fleming, of Minden, and Caroline Fayard, a Democratic lawyer from New Orleans, are within striking distance.

A quick, totally unscientific, survey of a dozen voters coming out of early voting in Baton Rouge Tuesday showed that they were sure — and have been for some time — whom they would support as president (Donald Trump). But their choice for senator didn’t firm up until they were driving to the polling station. One middle-aged woman didn’t know until, pressured by waiting voters shifting from one foot to other, she just stabbed the screen with an index finger — Kennedy, maybe, she said.

Why so little interest?

After all, this campaign featured a goat not harmed in the making of a political commercial, a cute publicity hound, murky links to murdered whores, promises to commit suicide by drinking weed killer, and a former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard’s comeback tour that has resonated in Europe but not so much in Louisiana.

Pundits like to point to a historically long legislative sessions that grappled with — though still did not conquer — historically deep budget deficits. Then there were police killing and being killed followed by massive flooding.

But a big reason could be that the birthplace of a singing governor, the Silver Zipper and Earl K. Long has produced a crop of button-down candidates who are dull. “That goes a long way in explaining why so few have paid attention,” Couvillon said.

Back when Louisiana’s politics was as “spicy as its gumbo,” political parties didn’t matter as much as personal charisma. That’s not the case anymore, said Baton Rouge pollster Bernie Pinsonat.

These candidates are the product of a 20-year effort to push a culturally unique Louisiana into the national norm. Pinsonat points out that their positions, which follow national party lines, are virtually indistinguishable. Republicans hate the Affordable Care Act and U.S. Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland. Democrats love equal pay and increasing the minimum wage.

Political action committees and partisans lie in wait for any off-message rhetoric. “It doesn’t allow candidates, who are eloquent, a chance to excite voters with fresh ideas. Fresh ideas can get you killed,” Pinsonat said.

And that’s really all people need to know to explain what they’ll be seeing on television for the next week or so, said Florida pollster Verne Kennedy.

If the runoff ends up being Boustany versus Kennedy, then it’ll likely be a bitter nail-biter between two well-funded Republicans. Democrats, by and large, will stay home.

If a Democrat makes the runoff, then Republicans, regardless of their stripes, will vote GOP, swamping the Democratic contender, said pollster Kennedy, who is no relation to the candidate.

So the goal for Republican candidates is to knock down intraparty competitors, while making sure at least one Democrat has just enough support to finish ahead of all of the other Republican challengers.

“This is how elections are really rigged,” Verne Kennedy said.

That is why the Super PAC backing Treasurer Kennedy is banging away at Boustany as a millionaire enabler of Muslim terrorists.

On Thursday, federal disclosures show that the pro-Boustany Louisiana Prosperity Fund spent about $150,000 and Better Louisiana PAC, which supports Fleming, spent $125,000 to pound away at Treasurer Kennedy.

Republicans aren’t alone in their inclination to, in the words of Fayard, “eat their young.”

As both she and her Democratic rival compete for African American votes, Fayard took a comment Campbell made at a forum out of context to link him to racist David Duke.

Campbell is behind spots that blame Fayard, who at 23 worked for Goldman Sachs investment bankers, for causing the financial crisis that plunged America into a deep recession.

Pollster Kennedy says the influential south Louisiana businessmen who fund his polls — so they know in which candidate to invest — have told him if Nov. 8 ends with a Democrat and Republican in a runoff, they won’t pay for any more surveys.

“There’s no need,” Kennedy said.

Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCnb.