Democrat John Bel Edwards and Republican David Vitter spent much of the first televised debate in the gubernatorial runoff taking aim at each other’s positions on issues like Medicaid expansion, transportation funding and the state budget.
But the final minutes of Tuesday night’s debate were peppered with direct hits and personal digs.
“You are a liar, a cheater and a stealer, and I don’t tolerate that,” Edwards told a visibly agitated Vitter.
Vitter accused Edwards, a military veteran, of not living “by the Honor Code.”
“You are completely disingenuous,” he said.
Edwards and Vitter have engaged in a heated, often personal, head-to-head campaign in the weeks since Louisiana’s Oct. 24 primary.
Tuesday night’s debate, which was sponsored by Louisiana Public Broadcasting and the Council for a Better Louisiana, aired across the state through LPB stations and nationally on C-SPAN just a day after Edwards and Vitter went face-to-face in a tense forum at the Baton Rouge Press Club’s regular luncheon.
The two candidates restated positions on several key issues:
Vitter would consider expanding Medicaid through the federal Affordable Care Act, but only with a waiver from the federal government to make the program tailored to Louisiana.
Edwards supports Medicaid expansion, as is.
Both candidates agree that the state should rein in some tax credits and work to free up other areas of the state budget by removing some dedications.
But the debate was unique in pitting the candidates so directly at each other. After each question, Edwards and Vitter had a chance to ask questions of their own of each other.
The first indication of tensions ahead came when, during a discussion on Edwards’ repeated linking of Vitter to Gov. Bobby Jindal and Vitter’s constant connecting of Edwards to President Barack Obama, the candidates interrupted and talked over each other.
Both campaigns have run ads linking the candidates to their party counterparts. Both candidates have demonstrated areas with which they have differed from them.
Asked about the negative tone of the campaign, Vitter pointed to the constant stream of negative attack ads he’s faced.
“There’s nobody who has been the target of more negative campaigning than me,” he said, noting that several political action committees have been created to attack him. He only alluded to the central theme of those ads and a recent one from Edwards’ campaign: Vitter’s prostitution scandal.
“You act holier than thou,” Vitter said. “You have the most vicious negative ad up right now.”
He was referring to Edwards’ recent ad that claims Vitter put “prostitutes over patriots” because cell phone and voting records put him in contact with the D.C. madam the same day he missed a vote honoring fallen soldiers in Congress.
“If it’s a low blow, then that’s because of where you live, senator,” Edwards said, alluding to what he called Vitter’s “extracurricular activities.”
Edwards has been bolstered in recent days by the endorsement of his onetime opponent, Republican Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, who came in fourth in the race, and a hard-hitting ad that took aim at Vitter’s past prostitution scandal.
Vitter, meanwhile, has sought to align Edwards with the national Democratic Party and Obama’s agenda.
Vitter participated in just two televised debates in the run-up to the primary, which included Edwards, Dardenne and third-place finisher Scott Angelle.
He already has agreed to a second televised debate scheduled for Monday.