Louisiana Tech University hosted a debate among the four major candidates for governor Thursday night — one of the few televised debates Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter has agreed to participate in ahead of the Oct. 24 election.

But there were no students in the crowd to see it — no crowd at all, actually. The debate had no live audience, a point that Vitter’s opponents, Democratic state Rep. John Bel Edwards and Republicans Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne and Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle, each labeled “ridiculous” and “disturbing.”

The debate was held in an athletic facility adjacent to Tech’s football stadium. Media covering the event, many of whom had to pass through multiple checkpoints to enter the facility, were allowed only in a separate room with a spotty video feed.

Outside the debate, a handful of students held signs in protest of the debate’s lack of audience. A debate held Wednesday night on the University of Louisiana at Lafayette campus had students in the room. Similarly, a televised forum held at Southeastern Louisiana University also had a mostly student audience. Vitter participated in neither, citing scheduling conflicts.

Following the debate, Angelle, Edwards and Dardenne met with reporters, but Vitter did not.

All three speculated that Vitter’s campaign was behind the lack of live audience and media viewing room.

“(Vitter) doesn’t want to answer the tough questions,” Angelle told reporters.

“I was very disturbed by it,” Edwards said of the setup.

Dardenne, who visited with the student protesters prior to the debate, called the setup “ridiculous.”

“It was an attempt so that you would not have immediate access to him,” he said.

Inside the debate, one of only two major televised debates Vitter has agreed to participate in, candidates offered their solutions to the state budget crisis and views on higher education funding and health care. But across the state, viewers reported dropped feeds on television and online.

The election takes place Oct. 24, with a Nov. 21 runoff expected. Early voting is underway and runs through 6 p.m. Saturday.

Vitter’s opponents wasted no time before lobbing attacks at him. But Vitter also was quick to strike at his three opponents.

In the first question of the debate, Vitter came out swinging against his opponents.

“Baton Rouge is broken and dysfunctional, and there are no leaders there,” he said of the state budget crisis.

Angelle and Dardenne both responded by pointing to Washington, D.C., and the federal deficit.

All four candidates said they would call a special legislative session or multiple sessions early next year, if elected, to address the state’s finances. Louisiana’s current budget is an estimated $400 million off track. The state faces a more than $1 billion shortfall in the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Vitter said he would work to reduce spending at the State Capitol.

“We can make real reductions in spending if we undedicate areas and get rid of wasteful spending,” he said, noting his proposal to reduce the state automobile fleet.

Angelle said he thinks the state should look at removing dedications in the state budget, as well as reviewing its long list of tax credits and incentives.

He has proposed setting up a committee to review them for effectiveness. “I think we, in this state, got drunk on giving away your money,” Angelle said.

Dardenne said he would start by reducing the staff in the governor’s administration and call on the Legislature to re-evaluate its incentive programs.

“We’ll have to address the budget before we do anything else,” he said.

Edwards said he would force the state to reprioritize its spending and advance Medicaid expansion through the federal Affordable Care Act to bring in federal dollars.

“We should stop sending our tax dollars to Washington, D.C., to send to states that have expanded,” he said.

All candidates said they support Medicaid expansion in some form, with Vitter, Angelle and Dardenne saying they would seek special waivers from the federal government before implementing it.

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 .