Three Louisiana governor candidates criticize David Vitter's absence from Monday's debate: 'We have a candidate who has no courage to come here' _lowres

Advocate staff photo by APRIL BUFFINGTON -- Gubernatorial candidate John Bel Edwards, left, gives his response to one of the questions with Scott Angelle, middle and Jay Dardenne listening at the Raycomm's debate held at the Governor's Mansion on Monday, October 19.

Three of the four major candidates for governor squared off in a debate at the Governor’s Mansion on Monday — just days before voters head to the polls.

Though U.S. Sen. David Vitter wasn’t in attendance, the debate gave his opponents an opportunity to directly address Vitter’s nearly decade-old prostitution scandal. All said they believe it should be an issue in the governor’s race.

Republican Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne said Vitter’s 2007 admission of a “very serious sin” is “a stain on Louisiana.”

“I don’t know how an individual’s character cannot be relevant to a campaign,” Dardenne said. “It’s not going to go away.”

Republican Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle pointed to Vitter’s criticism of then-President Bill Clinton during his own sex scandal.

“Clearly, he believes it’s an issue,” Angelle said. “We have a candidate for governor who has no courage to come here.”

Democratic state Rep. John Bel Edwards said he also thinks Vitter’s “hypocrisy” is an issue that voters should consider.

Edwards, Angelle and Dardenne also used the latest debate to plug their positions on the state budget, health care and other issues affecting Louisiana. The three candidates also are expected to take part in a debate on the LSU campus on Wednesday.

With a low turnout in Louisiana’s early voting period, most experts are predicting sparse turnout at the polls in Saturday’s election. A Nov. 21 runoff will be held between the top two vote-getters.

Bernie Pinsonat, a political analyst, said voter apathy is the major hurdle this year, describing the level of disinterest in the election is “as bad as I’ve ever seen it.”

“There’s no real energy,” he said during the Baton Rouge Press Club meeting Monday.

Pinsonat predicted that turnout won’t top 50 percent, despite candidates spending several million dollars on the race and voter unrest over Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration.

“It just hasn’t worked out,” he said.

The issue of Vitter’s 2007 scandal also hasn’t caught fire, despite opponents frequently alluding to it and an independent group’s TV ads highlighting it.

Vitter apologized in 2007 when his phone number was connected to the D.C. Madam and has since refused to comment further. He has taken part in just two of the major televised debates this election cycle — frequently citing his busy schedule in Washington. The other three candidates last week accused him of being behind the unusual setup and tight security for a debate on the Louisiana Tech University campus in Ruston. That debate featured no student audience and media were in a distant room with a spotty stream of the candidates. Vitter did not join the other three in visiting the media room post-debate.

There were no major bombshells in the latest debate and there were few opportunities for the candidates to set themselves apart.

All three have said that they believe that the state has to stop using money from the transportation trust fund for other purposes, and focus on fixing the state’s infrastructure.

All three said they are open to Medicaid expansion, in some form, though Dardenne and Angelle want the state to seek waivers to do so, while Edwards supports a straight expansion approach.

All said they would like the state to evaluate what the state gets back from its incentive programs and focus on addressing those tax giveaway programs as part of addressing the state’s budget crisis.

All three candidates said that mental health should be the focus for those who want to address the state’s recent spate of law enforcement deaths.

Angelle said he thinks the state needs to study its offerings and address the issue of people with mental illness ending up in jail, rather than treatment.

“This is an issue that is very close to me,” he said, noting that his wife is in training to become a mental health counselor. “There is no baseline study.”

Edwards agreed, and noted that mental health services have lagged in recent years.

“This is not about guns,” he said. “We have to do better by our people.”

Dardenne said he also worries that the state’s mental health offerings are inadequate.

“It’s unfortunate that it takes a series of tragedies like this to elevate this discussion,” he said.

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp. For more coverage of Louisiana state government and politics, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog .