Stephanie Grace: David Vitter is 'absolutely a problem' for Bobby Jindal's presidential campaign, and here's why _lowres

U.S. Sen. David Vitter; Gov. Bobby Jindal

Gov. Bobby Jindal hasn’t formally announced it yet, but he’s clearly in campaign mode. His appearance last week at a Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Good Friday breakfast is just the latest signal that he’s plotting a presidential run.

U.S. Sen. David Vitter, meanwhile, is spending less time in Washington and more in Louisiana as he campaigns for Jindal’s job.

The way these two longtime rivals are going at it these days, though, you’d think they were running against each other. In fact, the gubernatorial contest is starting to feel like a virtual clash of the GOP titans.

Vitter’s not the only big-name contestant to succeed Jindal, of course, and he’s certainly not the only one who’s focusing on his differences with the lame-duck governor. So are Democratic state Rep. John Bel Edwards, Republican Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne and, to a lesser extent, Republican Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle. It’s Vitter, though, who seems to be landing the most blows.

One way to tell is that Jindal is starting to punch back.

Consider the events surrounding last week’s gubernatorial forum in Baton Rouge before the National Federation of Independent Business, the latest in a series of gatherings in front of key interest groups. As with earlier forums, several candidates took the opportunity to issue statements pointing out how they’d differ from Jindal on matters important to that day’s audience — in this case, on Jindal’s proposal to roll back state refunds of inventory taxes paid to local parishes.

Vitter’s, though, stood out because of its harsh tone.

“I really think the governor’s proposal to repeal the refundable portion of the inventory tax credit is a horrible idea. It would represent a huge tax increase on thousands of employers. And it’s an absolute killer of jobs and growth,” Vitter’s news release, which was distributed to the audience, said.

“Just because some Washington political groups have given Gov. Jindal permission to repeal refundable tax credits without calling that a tax increase, the governor has proposed repealing virtually all of these, whether it makes sense in each case or not. And just because those same groups won’t give him permission to repeal nonrefundable credits and the like, the governor is protecting virtually all of those, whether it makes sense in each case or not.”

Vitter continued to pound the theme at the forum, at one point labeling Jindal’s plan flat-out “crazy.”

Perhaps the most attention-getting development of the day, though, was that Jindal didn’t just ignore Vitter’s attack. If Vitter was going to question his sanity, well, Jindal would just come out and challenge the senator’s conservative credentials.

“Sen. Vitter’s suggestion that he wants to consider repealing nonrefundable tax credits as part of ‘analysis on all credits, exemptions and deductions’ is concerning. After eight years of tax cuts, maybe the voters will want to pay more in taxes. Usually that is the Democrat platform, the Obama approach. Once in a while, some Republicans try it,” Jindal said in a statement issued by his press office.

One takeaway from the entertaining back and forth is that Jindal’s worried that the criticism from a fellow well-known Louisiana Republican is hurting his image outside the state’s borders. Judging from the number of recent national stories on Jindal’s troubles back home, that fear seems entirely justified.

Another is that Vitter is positioning himself to be a player in Jindal’s last legislative session — something of a shadow governor, if you will. His criticism centered on one of the governor’s key proposals to deal with the $1.6 billion budget hole, and zeroed in on his widely mocked refusal to consider a broad array of options that would not pass muster with the Washington-based Americans for Tax Reform. It also sent a message that he wants to help steer this year’s debate, if only to minimize the problems he’d face should he become governor next year.

It’s not a bad plan, given that lawmakers are also going to be spending the session jockeying for favor with a possible Vitter administration. It does have its limits, though.

In rejecting Jindal’s position on inventory tax rebates, Vitter said he’d support eliminating the tax entirely and replacing it with “another revenue stream from the state to local government.” Where would that money come from? Well, he didn’t say. Chances are he won’t, because no candidate for office ever wants to talk about increasing the burden on any potential voters.

On that, Vitter and Jindal have more in common than they’d like to admit.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com. Read her blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/gracenotes. Follow her on Twitter, @stephgracenola.