Three candidates for Louisiana governor tackle budget crisis in debate, with subtle differences in opinion _lowres

Advocate staff photo by HILARY SCHEINUK -- From left, Louisiana Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle, Lieutenant Governor Jay Dardenne, and State Rep. John Bel Edwards, D-72nd Dist. listen to moderator questions during a Louisiana Governor's Debate presented by NBC33, Wednesday, October 7, 2015, at The Dunham School in Baton Rouge, La. U.S. Sen. David Vitter has repeatedly skipped major campaign forums and televised debates attended by his three opponents, in what has become one of the notable features of this year’s governor’s race.

Scott Angelle, Jay Dardenne and John Bel Edwards will each tell voters Wednesday night why he ought to be the state’s next governor, during a televised debate to be aired statewide by Louisiana Public Broadcasting.

David Vitter won’t be there.

He has repeatedly skipped major campaign forums and televised debates attended by his three opponents, in what has become one of the notable features of this year’s governor’s race. The others have a ready explanation for his absences.

“He doesn’t want to answer the question he’s been asked a couple of times that he’s refused to answer, whether or not he broke the law,” Lt. Gov. Dardenne said in an interview, referring to Vitter’s admission in 2007 that he committed a “very serious sin” in 1999-2000 in connection with the D.C. Madam prostitution service.

“He doesn’t want to answer that question,” Angelle, who regulates utilities as a member of the Public Service Commission, said in an interview, in a comment echoed by Edwards. The campaign forums and debates are, Angelle added, “a job interview. Showing up for the job interview is important and taking the unscripted questions is important.”

Vitter has blamed his absences on the demands of serving in the U.S. Senate in Washington, D.C.

Vitter’s decision to miss the events is an unusual and potentially risky strategy for a candidate who, according to polls, is trying to fend off Dardenne or Angelle from nosing ahead of him by the Oct. 24 primary. All three men are Republicans.

Vitter will participate in a televised debate Thursday night at Louisiana Tech University, although the organizers of that event are facing criticism for keeping out the press and the public, including students.

Wednesday night’s hourlong debate begins at 7 p.m. and will take place in the Bayou Bijoux Theater in the student union at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. LPB is organizing the event with the Council for a Better Louisiana, a well-respected Baton Rouge-based advocacy and research group.

“We have a tradition for 30 years of doing statewide TV debates in a professional and fair manner,” said Beth Courtney, LPB’s longtime chief executive officer, adding that she made this point personally to Vitter when he visited the station several weeks ago to tape an interview.

“I’ll be the judge of that,” he replied, according to Courtney. He also asked for the station’s standards and rules in writing, which Courtney said she provided.

Courtney expressed disappointment with Vitter’s absence.

“It’s important to have as many opportunities as possible to see candidates in unrehearsed mode and not just when they’re on a script or in TV ads,” she said.

Why Vitter is missing the event is not clear. Asked on Monday, Vitter said he didn’t want to talk to The Advocate.

Spokesman Luke Bolar cited a “scheduling conflict.” Asked for specifics, he said, “I’ll get back to you on that.”

He never did.

Needing to be in Washington is not the reason because the Senate is not in session this week.

According to a recent article by Associated Press reporter Melinda Deslatte, Vitter said “his opponents ‘want to have it both ways,’ criticizing him for not attending the events, but then criticizing ‘any minor vote’ he misses in Washington. ‘I’m doing my job that I was elected to do. I’m not going to neglect that in any way,’ he said in an interview.”

Vitter didn’t attend a forum sponsored by the Press Club of Baton Rouge on Sept. 21 — radio host Jim Engster called it a virtually unprecedented move for a major candidate.

Vitter also missed the Sept. 2 televised debate held by Southeastern University in Hammond and the Oct. 7 event organized by WVLA-33 television and held before an audience in Baton Rouge. Dardenne, Angelle and Edwards laid out their views on each occasion and showed a general chumminess with each other.

The dynamics changed when Vitter participated in the Oct. 1 debate held at WDSU-TV in New Orleans. He aggressively presented his case on why he is the true conservative in the race, raised questions about Angelle and Dardenne and highlighted Edwards’ party affiliation — he is a Democrat — by linking him to President Barack Obama.

Angelle and Dardenne returned the fire by challenging Vitter’s truthfulness in his comments about them. Angelle called Vitter “Senator Pinocchio,” and Dardenne said Vitter is lying about him in attack TV ads.

Unlike the others, Vitter has yet to commit to a debate hosted by Raycom Media on Oct. 19 in the front parlor at the Governor’s Mansion. Another debate will be held Oct. 21 at the LSU Manship School of Mass Communication.

Bolar has made the argument that Vitter has attended some three dozen campaign forums around the state. One was held Sept. 4 , organized by the Southeast Super Region Committee, which promotes jobs and investment in New Orleans and Baton Rouge. The candidates got the questions in advance.

On Monday night, Vitter — and Dardenne — spoke at an event organized by the American Federation for Children at the Windsor Court in New Orleans. The group’s moderator lobbed friendly questions that gave both men the chance to win applause for expressing support for education vouchers and charter schools.

On Tuesday, both men spoke again at another event, this time in Baton Rouge, organized by the Coalition for Common Sense and Lawsuit Abuse Watch — conservative groups that want to limit lawsuits filed by plaintiffs’ lawyers. Vitter has promised to pursue their “tort reform” agenda as governor. Vitter’s position has prompted the Carmouche firm of trial lawyers to broadcast attack ads against him.

On Thursday night, the four candidates will appear together at Louisiana Tech at a debate that will air on KTBS-TV Shreveport and be simulcast. Dave Guerin, a university spokesman, said the candidates will not get the questions in advance.

Edwards, Dardenne and Angelle all are questioning the decision to have no studio audience.

“Why would they not invite students to attend and observe the debate?” asked Edwards. “It’s a great opportunity for those students to learn more about the candidates and the political process. It strikes me as very, very odd.”

Edwards — as well as the other two candidates — said he found it odd that reporters will have to watch the debate in another room and will have access to candidates afterward who choose to go to the room.

Guerin said the venue chosen — the club lounge within the Davison Athletics Complex — is too small to permit students or the press to be there.

Vitter’s opponents believe the debate was organized to prevent him from having unscripted moments with the public or the press before or afterward.

Following the WDSU debate, Vitter walked away from a reporter rather than answer questions.

Follow Tyler Bridges on Twitter, @TegBridges. For more coverage of the governor’s race, follow Louisiana Politics at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/.