Lanny Keller: Opponents would prefer to grapple in person, as David Vitter lobs shells from a distance _lowres

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON--U.S. Senator David Vitter takes part in a Louisiana Governor debate at the New Orleans Jazz Market in New Orleans, La. Friday, Sept. 4, 2015.

Scrambling behind David Vitter in the polls, his three main competitors gathered before the Press Club of Baton Rouge and helped themselves to swings at the absent U.S. senator, “the elephant not in the room,” as Jay Dardenne said.

To hear them tell it, Vitter’s disabilities are legion. “Sen. Vitter is the consummate Washington politician,” said John Bel Edwards. A D.C. practitioner of division, driving wedges in the electorate instead of bringing people together, Dardenne said. A Washington figure without administrative experience at all, added Scott Angelle.

Dardenne also explicitly noted Vitter’s renowned “very serious sin” that was revealed in 2007.

Not much was left unsaid on the character front, and they related it to governing: “It is about the man,” Angelle said. “We need a governor who wants to work with everyone.”

These attacks don’t explain why Vitter remains the candidate to beat. And that the voters deplored his sins but thumpingly re-elected him in 2010. Vitter stage-managed the 2014 election of U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy to the state’s junior Senate seat, one of the more remarkable demonstrations of political dominance since Huey P. Long picked John H. Overton in 1932.

Vitter remains a sitting U.S. senator with piles of money in this race, probably as much in his campaign account as all the rest combined. That includes an only theoretically independent “super PAC” that is a vehicle to attack Vitter’s opponents.

Yet, the piñata for the party did not appear. That Vitter would not be there was an almost foregone conclusion, and not because of the thin tissue of fiction that he was working on Senate business.

The senator seeks to avoid appearances such as the Press Club event, where he’s not assured that the questions will be screened in advance. That’s a remarkable level of crowd-control that has also benefitted his opponents. One does not have to be clairvoyant to understand that questions of personal character would come up; when they do, despite the restrictions on questions, the senator is furious with organizers.

And since almost everyone is touched by the Governor’s Office in Louisiana, no one wants to have a place in the famously vindictive David Vitter’s political black book.

Unfortunately for Vitter’s opponents, the contrived forums of this year have failed to allow the competition to grapple with the frontrunner. Instead, he lobs shells via media at Dardenne and Angelle, both Republicans, to keep them from a runoff slot on Oct. 24.

The notion is that Edwards, a Democrat, would be easier to beat in the November runoff is common — although the self-confident legislator and West Point graduate obviously thinks he would win.

Edwards is probably the most improved candidate this year. He is far more focused and comfortable with the role than when he started a year or more ago; he does not quite match the depth of experience of Dardenne and Angelle in state government but in forums like Monday’s, he generally comes off well.

Unfortunately for Edwards in a runoff, there will be many forums like Monday’s, where Vitter simply will refuse to appear. He will campaign as Cassidy did, in carefully scripted appearances and through media buys, using cash to turn the attack ad machine on Edwards.

At 30 days before the election, to the detriment of Angelle and Dardenne, the political environment appears to be favoring Vitter, warts and all.

Lanny Keller is an editorial writer for The Advocate. His email address is lkeller@theadvocate.com.