Advocate staff file photo by BILL FEIG -- Gubernatorial candidates. From left at table, John Bel Edwards, David Vitter, Jay Dardenne and Scott Angelle.

Something strange — and welcome — is happening in the early days of Louisiana’s gubernatorial race. Although the primary election won’t be held until this fall, the four announced candidates are already vigorously debating the issues.

Four rivals for Louisiana’s top political job — Democratic state representative John Bel Edwards and Republican candidates U.S. Sen. David Vitter, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne and Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle — have agreed to discuss small-business issues during a panel discussion in Baton Rouge on March 31.

It’s the third forum of its kind in recent weeks. Previous programs featured discussions of education and transportation.

We commend the candidates for showing up and sharing their ideas about leading the state. This kind of engagement stands out more than it should. In today’s campaign climate, which stresses soundbites and cynical TV spots, reasoned debates about the challenges of governance have become, sadly, the exception rather than the rule.

It’s good news when four smart, accomplished candidates for governor agree to openly deliberate, rather than dodge, key questions facing the state during the next four years.

That gives us hope that whoever wins will be able to lead Louisiana effectively during difficult times. This year’s campaign is still young, but we like what we’ve seen so far. A state plagued by fiscal crisis, failing schools, substandard roads and struggling universities can’t afford business as usual in picking its next governor. The willingness of candidates to participate in debates is a hopeful sign that they’ll treat voters as partners, not afterthoughts, in charting Louisiana’s future.