Lanny Keller: Attacking moral character of U.S. Sen. David Vitter is wrong strategy for Louisiana gubernatorial candidates _lowres

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON--Sen. David Vitter, R-La., right, and State Rep. John Bel Edwards, D-Baton Rouge, take part in the gubernatorial candidates debate at WDSU in New Orleans, La. Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015.

They’ve got it all wrong.

As Jay Dardenne and Scott Angelle sharpen their attacks on David Vitter, desperately seeking a runoff spot in November, they’ve been eager to impugn their fellow Republican’s moral character.

That may be the wrong tack politically, if voters are to have any last-minute doubts about the man they’ve elected to the U.S. Senate twice.

The other GOP candidates want to edge past Vitter into a runoff, widely projected to include the sole Democrat, John Bel Edwards. Dardenne and Angelle in Monday’s debate televised statewide — sans Vitter, who has dodged most forums — eagerly pounced on a reporter’s question about the “very serious sin” that the senator admitted to in 2007. It apparently involved prostitution.

But the two candidates are also aggrieved at Vitter’s “vicious” attacks — both have used that word in several debates — on their own records and political characters. “Sen. Pinocchio” is what Angelle says.

Attacks in politics are nothing new, but this campaign does show an unattractive side to Vitter’s character: the attack dog of the Senate was supposed to be on a firm leash during the gubernatorial campaign. Vitter talked about bringing people together and pushing “conservative reform.” That presumably means more comprehensive policies than two previous Republican governors with whom Vitter has quarreled, Mike Foster and Bobby Jindal.

If the attack dog was to be on a leash, there was also a kinder and gentler Vitter on display, but mostly in private meetings with influential people across the state. Often unaccompanied even by a single aide, he would meet at airports or port offices or with major interests, well-briefed and eager to engage with others’ concerns. A warm TV endorsement by Wendy Vitter was on twice during Saturday’s LSU game.

Who is the real David Vitter?

Dardenne and Vitter attended one Baton Rouge forum last week, before an audience boosting changes in the legal system favoring business interests. Both are generally simpatico on those issues, but Dardenne used his time to criticize Vitter’s attacks on his integrity, such as allegations the latter took his wife to Paris on the state dime.

Dardenne’s rebuttal, at a gathering talking about the courts, could be called a summary judgment against Vitter’s charges. Vitter was stone-faced most of the time, focusing with iron discipline on the subjects at hand, barely noticing Dardenne’s indignation. That the falsehood of his attacks was exposed did not outwardly disturb him at all.

Vitter’s apparently casual willingness to embrace such thin material in an attack, to stick with his script even face-to-face with his victim, suggests that the warm and fuzzy Vitter is going to have a short shelf-life.

“They all want to be governor,” political analyst Bernie Pinsonat said Monday of Louisiana’s political class, because of the power and control that the office has.

But that level of power and control is rarely good for a man’s character. We’ve had in Jindal an Ivy League governor with all the answers, smart and focused when he wants to be, isolated and domineering when he wants to be. Are we going to elect another one?

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