David Vitter, John Bel Edwards focus on questions about sex scandal, ‘spying,’ endorsements in heated forum _lowres

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- In the first head to head meeting since the primary election, gubernatorial candidates David Vitter, left, and John Bel Edwards, right, meet in a forum hosted by the Press Club of Baton Rouge.

The most significant political statement of Monday’s debate was David Vitter’s attempt at a pleasantry, “Happy to be here.”

That the U.S. senator was there at all shrieked that he wouldn’t be there at all if he hadn’t run so far behind in the October primary for governor.

The forum before the Press Club of Baton Rouge on Monday showed that it’s catch-up time for Vitter against John Bel Edwards, less than two weeks before the Nov. 21 runoff.

And the purpose of attending debates he mostly shunned in the primary is for Vitter to attempt to draw distinctions between views of the candidates. Sometimes Vitter’s criticisms will part company from literal truth, but the voters are about to see the guy whose intensity and message discipline made him the first-primary winner of statewide Senate elections in 2004 and 2010.

Is there time to make it work?

Vitter hammered at Edwards’ low voting records with the business lobbyists at the State Capitol. A lifetime average, Vitter cried, below Mary Landrieu, Mitch Landrieu or Bill Jefferson — the last a blast from the past, as he was a state senator back in the early 1980s.

That those ratings are from years or decades ago, when the political environment was totally different, is the kind of subtlety that is irrelevant to Vitter on the attack.

He’ll raise taxes, added Vitter of Edwards. Of course, the senator’s own statement that he will take a “balanced approach” to budget-cutting and revenues actually admits that Vitter’s first year would be little different from Edwards; the budget is so far out of whack that new revenue sources to the tune of $500 million or so are necessary, and both potential governors are going to have to tell the Legislature to show us the money.

Many Republicans in the Legislature joined Edwards in backing new revenues this year. So they too got lousier business ratings than in past years, but don’t expect Vitter to dwell on that.

All this debate will play out over the next week or so, with the public again being asked to believe that Army veteran Edwards, endorsed by prominent Republicans like Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, is some kind of Leon Trotsky of the teachers unions and the anti-business trial lawyers.

There’s enough truth in the charges to make the top business lobbyists sweat, but Edwards generally held his own in rebutting the Vitter attacks at the Press Club — more of a genuine debate than most of the televised forums.

What Edwards did not articulate very well is that the business nightmares, and for that matter teachers unions’ visions of rolling back charter schools, are unrealistic. A governor may set a different tone, but most legislators have been re-elected. Businesses should fire all their lobbyists if they can’t defend themselves in the State Capitol with the pro-business club that House and Senate have been in the past dozen years.

That doesn’t fit Vitter’s new narrative, though.

Something else doesn’t: Vitter was in the same room a year ago, talking about bipartisanship and reaching out to people of all political views.

Senator Sunshine is dead and gone. On Monday, it was Edwards preaching from Vitter’s former text, seeking to reassure nervous Republicans of his moderation and openness to bipartisan solutions to the state’s problems.

Toward the end of the debate, Edwards remembered that he’s not so much running against Vitter as against the eight years of Gov. Bobby Jindal and “failed leadership,” a phrase we can expect to hear more often in response to the new Vitter line.

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