'The big thing that stands out' so far among the four major candidates running for Louisiana governor _lowres

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

The four major candidates for governor spent the past week in different ways.

U.S. Sen. David Vitter hosted embattled but popular New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie at a brewery in Baton Rouge.

Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne traveled the state with an elaborate Mardi Gras “mascot” in a van decorated to highlight the successes of Louisiana’s tourism industry.

State Rep. John Bel Edwards pushed legislation at the State Capitol and blasted Republican legislative leaders for a lack of a clear strategy for addressing Louisiana’s budget crisis.

And Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle participated in a tele-town hall, fielding questions from randomly selected Louisiana residents about mobile home financing and abortion, among other topics.

Louisiana voters will elect a new governor in about five months, and the race is shaping up among those four candidates, who will spend the summer attending festivals, crawfish boils and other gatherings across the state.

The past week illustrated the diverse paths that their campaigns are taking early in the race.

In addition to Christie, Republican Vitter has touted the endorsements he has won from a string of marquee names in the GOP, including U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, of Kentucky; former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, of Pennsylvania; and former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton.

Angelle, a Breaux Bridge Republican who was appointed to a brief stint as lieutenant governor in 2010, has set out on a quest to build his name recognition, with an emphasis on voters who may not know him yet but are likely to agree with his conservative positions.

Edwards, who has been endorsed by the state Democratic Party, has been setting himself apart as a key voice against the Legislature’s Republican leadership as the state faces threats of deep cuts to higher education funding in the coming year.

And Dardenne, also a Republican, has been steadily highlighting his record throughout 24 years in elected office, including as the state’s cultural and tourism leader since he became lieutenant governor.

If there’s one thing they all have in common, it’s that they’ve been working to distance themselves from Gov. Bobby Jindal, each taking subtle digs at the current administration whenever they can.

“They are all separating themselves from the governor in different ways,” said New Orleans-based political consultant John Loe, who is not affiliated with any of the gubernatorial campaigns or their political action committees. “That’s the big thing that stands out.”

Jindal, who is term-limited and has made frequent out-of-state trips in recent months as he tests the waters for a presidential run, said he hasn’t decided whether to endorse anyone in the campaign yet, though it’s also not clear that any of the candidates are actively seeking his public support. After years of cuts to state funding for higher education and other services, his popularity in Louisiana has sagged.

The gubernatorial primary will be Oct. 24. A Nov. 21 runoff will be held between the top two vote-getters if no candidate takes more than 50 percent of the vote in the primary.

The four candidates already have appeared alongside one another at several forums, though the events have stopped just short of becoming debates.

“It’s still very early,” Loe said. “Once all of the candidates are running advertising, that’s when the campaign really heats up.”

Expect that heat to come near the end of summer, he said: “I think that voters really focus in when the kids are back in school. They’re watching their fall TV shows, and they’re back in their routines.”

Campaign finance reports show Vitter with a dominant lead in the money race, followed by Dardenne, Angelle and Edwards.

“He’s got a big money advantage, but he’s going against some formidable opponents,” Loe said.

Loe said he believes other candidates will have significant war chests that can give them plenty of exposure on TV and other advertising venues, including Internet ads, and “then it will be a real race about the issues,” he added.

Comparing himself to Christie at the brewery event, Vitter promised to be a no-nonsense leader who might rile some feathers.

“He’s not afraid to shake up the establishment and do what needs to be done,” Vitter said of Christie. “A lot needed to be done when he came into office in New Jersey, and he’s done it.”

“I’m proud to look to his leadership and example,” he added.

Vitter worked the room, shaking hands with every guest, which included several influential lawmakers who wrapped up work at the Capitol in time to attend. Some of the attendees were given the opportunity to have photos taken with Christie — photos that included Vitter and in front of a “Vitter for Governor” backdrop.

That same night, Angelle had a decidedly different campaign strategy. For an hour, he took questions via telephone from a group of Louisiana residents.

After every few questions, he repeated to the phone crowd: “I want to remind you, my name is Scott Angelle, and I’m running for governor.”

The callers seemed mostly honored that they were asked to participate, and they frequently complimented Angelle, though it was clear that they were mostly undecided in the governor’s race.

“I’m so very impressed by you,” said a woman who identified herself as Mildred from Central.

Dardenne, meanwhile, spent the week crisscrossing the state, from New Orleans to Monroe to Lake Charles, recognizing the state’s tourism leaders. It’s a tour he’s done often in recent years to highlight the money that the state brings in from out-of-state visitors.

“It is a whirlwind,” he said. “We have had three record-breaking years in tourism. This really is an investment that pays dividends to the people of Louisiana.”

He said he wasn’t using the tour as an opportunity to campaign.

“I’m going to continue to do my job as lieutenant governor, the entire time I’m lieutenant governor,” he said. “Part of that job is to work with the local (convention and visitor bureaus) and recognize the successes we’ve had in tourism.”

Edwards, meanwhile, spent most of his time at the Capitol preparing for the most significant action on the budget to date.

Edwards, who heads the House Democratic Caucus, had threatened that Democrats would block several revenue-generating measures if not enough Republicans voted for them — an attempt to make sure that cuts to various state tax credit programs and a proposed hike in the cigarette tax wouldn’t fall squarely on the minority party’s shoulders.

“We reduced tax expenditures, except for the cigarette tax, which we raised,” Edwards said after a flurry of floor action on Thursday, still avoiding praise of the chamber’s majority party. “But we came up short of our stated goal.”

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.