Military veterans have been front and center in the race for Louisiana governor since the opening minutes of the runoff campaign.

On primary election night, Republican David Vitter postponed his speech to hear a testimonial from a veteran, whom he had helped get medical care and had used in a campaign commercial.

At almost the same instant, John Bel Edwards, a former U.S. Army Ranger, was telling his supporters that Vitter wouldn’t last five minutes at West Point, the Democrat’s alma mater.

Since then, the two candidates in the Nov. 21 runoff repeatedly have touched on how much they support veterans, compared legislation, argued about the issue in televised debates and made it a central part of the most memorable attack ad in a campaign that has seen a lot of negative advertising.

“I’m glad they have put such an emphasis on veterans’ issues. That’s important. I’m glad to hear it. But at the same time, I don’t want veterans exploited for political goals,” said James Rogers, a U.S. Navy veteran from Baton Rouge who attended a veterans’ remembrance at the Old State Capitol.

The event’s featured speaker, Michael McNaughton, an Afghanistan war veteran, criticized the strategy and looked directly at Edwards, who was sitting 10 feet away. “Do not use our veterans for promoting yourselves” to get elected, McNaughton said.

After the event, McNaughton, who supports Vitter, said he aimed his remarks at Edwards, but also at a number of other candidates who are using military service as part of their campaigns.

“This election is going too long,” said McNaughton, who is the outreach director for the Louisiana Department of Veterans Affairs. “We have veterans working on both sides for the governor’s race. It’s getting to the point that we’re separating in two different factions. Everyone is screaming on both sides.”

McNaughton lost his right leg when he stepped on a land mine. He met President George W. Bush in the hospital and in April 2004 ran with the president on the South Lawn of the White House.

McNaughton is particularly angry about an attack ad showing old photographs of Edwards in his U.S. Army uniform.

The commercial states Vitter missed an important vote involving deceased members of the military on the same day phone records showed he made a call to the “D.C. Madam.”

Vitter apologized in 2007 for a committing a “very serious sin.” The issue emerged repeatedly during the gubernatorial campaign. Vitter addressed the scandal in his own commercial released earlier this week, but has not disputed the spot’s accuracy.

The Vitter campaign also released a letter by a retired U.S. Air Force brigadier general pointing to regulations that say politicians shouldn’t wear uniforms in political advertising.

The rules apply to serving military and Edwards points out that plenty of politicians, including 2008 GOP presidential nominee Sen. John McCain, have run ads that included photos from their service days.

“The trouble Sen. Vitter has with that ad has nothing to do with my uniform,” Edwards said. “The fact of the matter is he missed a vote to honor deceased members of our military who were killed while on active duty. He chose to participate in extracurricular activities as opposed to that.”

“The military and West Point are being emphasized more as credential of character, than for a specifically targeted vote,” said Roy Fletcher, a longtime political strategist who worked for Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle, R-Breaux Bridge, who came in third in the October primary.

Edwards wants to contrast his service to Vitter’s scandal and the senator’s history of bare-knuckled political fighting that has alienated a lot of Louisiana officials. Vitter is countering that Edwards, whom he and his supporters have taken to calling “holier than thou,” is much more liberal than the Democrat’s campaign is letting on.

During Tuesday night’s debate, which was televised statewide, Vitter and Edwards jousted over who was the stronger supporter of veterans.

Vitter said he and his staff have personally guided veterans through the bureaucratic maze to get benefits and have worked to open and expand community-based medical clinics. He pointed to legislation that he recently co-sponsored that would help veterans start businesses after they leave the military.

“I have a very strong record,” Vitter said.

“Your record on this is atrocious,” Edwards countered, recalling votes against several bills over the years that would have enhanced insurance and housing benefits and others that would have given the military pay raises.

Vitter’s campaign on Wednesday responded in a prepared statement saying that every year, the senator has supported increasing military pay. But the bills Edwards cited would have busted the federal budget and taken away resources from troops in the field, the statement said.

State Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton, who was a U.S. Marine during the Vietnam War, said Wednesday that at the end of the day the attention put on veterans issues during the campaign will translate into better benefits and resources by whoever is elected on Nov. 21.

“I’m glad both of them are trying to outdo each other on veterans’ issues,” Adley said. “I don’t feel used. I feel honored by it, as a Vietnam vet who came home when people were spitting on you.”

Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCNB. For more coverage of government and politics, follow our Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/.