U.S. Sen. David Vitter aggressively portrayed himself as the true conservative Thursday night during the first televised debate featuring the four major gubernatorial candidates, but his two Republican rivals challenged his claims, with Lt. Gov. Dardenne at one point calling Vitter a “liar” and Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle calling him “Senator Pinocchio.”
Vitter highlighted his support from the pro-gun National Rifle Association and the anti-abortion group Louisiana Right to Life and his opposition to the Common Core education standards, which, Angelle pointed out, Vitter previously supported. Several times, Vitter held up a campaign booklet and told viewers they could get more details by going to his campaign website.
“I listen, I’ve stood up and I’ve fought for conservative Louisiana values,” Vitter said during his closing statement. “I’ve produced results.”
Vitter also went out of his way to tie state Rep. John Bel Edwards, the only major Democrat in the race, to President Barack Obama. Edwards responded that he differs from national Democrats on major issues, including his opposition to abortion and his support for gun rights. Edwards also confirmed to Vitter that he voted for Obama for president and then added, “but I have never voted for David Vitter.” The small studio audience laughed.
Edwards preferred to launch his attacks against the outgoing Republican governor, Bobby Jindal, chastising him for Edwards called “failed leadership.”
Dardenne and Vitter also sought to distance themselves from Jindal, who was less popular than Hillary Clinton or Obama in a poll released this week by The Advocate and WWL-TV. Angelle, as Vitter noted, held senior posts under Jindal.
“He’s hiding from his record,” Angelle said about Vitter, as Angelle noted that he has consistently opposed Common Core. Edwards also noted that he opposes Common Core while Dardenne said he remains a supporter.
Dardenne accused Vitter of lying about him in characterizing six of Dardenne’s votes as a state senator as pro-abortion. Dardenne also challenged Vitter on an attack ad that the senator began airing Thursday about a 2014 taxpayer-funded trip to Europe by Dardenne to promote tourism for Louisiana.
Dardenne and Angelle slipped in two sly references to Vitter’s 2007 prostitution scandal.
“Some may want to legalize prostitution in Louisiana,” Dardenne said at one point when discussing possible ways to solve the state’s budget woes under Jindal.
Vitter, Angelle said late in the debate, has “not only been wrong on fornication, he’s been wrong on taxation and he’s been wrong on education.”
Vitter stared ahead and did not respond to either comment.
Unlike a televised debate in 2010 when he won re-election to the Senate, he did not face a question about what in 2007 he called “a very serious sin.” He refused to be more specific in 2010 and again when the issue has come up during this year’s campaign.
The debate took place at WDSU-TV in New Orleans, slightly more than three weeks before the Oct. 24 primary. WDSU anchor Scott Walker alone asked the questions, and they were heavy on social issues on events outside of Louisiana, such as whether Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk of court, acted correctly in refusing to award marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
Five of the six candidates on the raised stage at a WDSU television studio said they sided with Davis, who briefly went to prison rather than issue the licenses.
“I don’t believe anyone is free to deny those marriage licenses once the Supreme Court has ruled,” said Edwards, the lone dissenter. “Anarchy would result.” Edwards added that he personally did not support same-sex marriages.
Asked two questions about marijuana, none of the major candidates said he had ever smoked marijuana, and all four opposed legalizing the drug, as other states have done.
Besides the three Republicans and Edwards, two minor candidates also shared the stage and had the same opportunity to answer Walker’s questions. They were Jeremy “JW” Odom, who introduced himself as a Baptist minister and tax consultant from Natchitoches, and Cary Deaton, a private attorney and former prosecutor from New Orleans.
Three other minor candidates did not meet WDSU’s criteria. They are: Beryl Billiot from Kentwood, Eric Paul Orgeron from River Ridge and S.L. Simpson from Shreveport.
Walker did not ask a question on the major issue the next governor will face – how to tackle the budget deficit that Jindal and the outgoing Legislature will bequeath – or on health care and gave the candidates only a few seconds to answer a question about how to reverse the budget cuts to higher education under Jindal.
The “WDSU debate spends 1 minute on higher education, but 10 minutes on Kim Davis … Oh, 0 minutes on budget,” Tweeted Joshua Stockley, a University of Louisiana at Monroe political science professor.
The debate occurred three days after the Advocate/WWL-TV poll showed that Vitter and Edwards are tied with 24 percent while Angelle and Dardenne each trail by about 10 points. The poll also showed that Vitter, the prohibitive favorite earlier this year, was trailing each of the other three candidates in a hypothetical match-up in the Nov. 21 runoff.
Political analysts believe that Edwards will take one of the two spots in the runoff because there are enough Democratic voters in this conservative state. That means, according to political analysts, Angelle and Dardenne have to somehow find a way to squeeze ahead of Vitter during the final three weeks of the primary, even though Vitter and his super PAC have much more money to spend.
Thursday night’s debate was the first televised debate with all four major candidates. Vitter missed the first one, which was hosted by Southeastern Louisiana, and has committed to attending only one of the remaining five, on Oct. 15 at Louisiana Tech. Vitter’s opponents say pointedly that he mostly skips events where he won’t get the questions in advance.
Coming into the debate, Vitter’s goal was simple, said Ron Faucheux, a former state House member from New Orleans who conducted the Advocate/WWL-TV poll. Vitter, according to Faucheaux, “wants to be the clear conservative in the race to solidify the conservative Republican base to make the runoff.”
Edwards, Faucheux said, “needs to solidify his Democratic base without offending independents and moderate Republicans.”
Follow Tyler Bridges on Twitter @TegBridges. For more coverage of the state capitol, follow Louisiana Politics at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/.