Photos: Candidates for Louisiana governor participate in debate forum Thursday _lowres

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON--Sen. David Vitter, R-La., talks before the gubernatorial candidates debate at WDSU in New Orleans, La. Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015.

The frenetic end to this year’s governor’s race has gotten me pining, strangely enough, for its beginning.

Months before the airwaves filled to the brim with nasty attack ads, the four major candidates spoke to an industry gathering of engineers and contractors about how Louisiana government works and doesn’t. Here was my take at the time: “Each was able to talk in detail about funding roadwork and coastal restoration, reforming the rainy day fund and revising capital outlay. … In short, each showed off an impressive mastery of the complexities of state government.”

Even before that, I’d noted that U.S. Sen. David Vitter, then and now the dominant force in the campaign, was showing signs of softening his notoriously harsh, partisan edges. Vitter had cracked open the door to expanding Medicaid, in contrast with Gov. Bobby Jindal’s no-compromise position, and he’d started paying occasional lip service to the concerns of the poor and vulnerable. He’d also broken with Jindal on framing the debate over the Common Core education standards as one more battle in the great culture wars — a stance he later reversed. He seemed, for a time, to be positioning himself as something like a healer.

I know the primary is less than three weeks away, but is it too late to get that governor’s race back?

High-stakes elections frequently turn nasty, and candidates routinely focus on manufactured differences and resort to ugly innuendos. But it’s hard to remember a larger disconnect between the major issues on the table and the political rhetoric.

And frankly, much of the blame has to go to Vitter. The senator is minimizing his televised debate appearances and avoiding answering journalists’ unscripted questions about vital issues like the state’s broken tax structure and its higher education funding crisis. His strategy made WDSU’s decision to give state issues short shrift in last week’s debate particularly galling.

Vitter’s also leading the way in running incendiary attack ads about his opponents, particularly his two fellow Republicans.

These commercials are coming both from his own campaign and from an innocuous-enough-sounding entity called the Fund for Louisiana’s Future, which is funded by donors willing to write six-figure checks on the senator’s behalf, as well as his own Senate campaign fund. So whenever you hear that name on television, think Vitter. He’s not the only candidate with a super PAC working on his behalf — Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle’s Louisiana Rising has cashed checks from a single Texas oil executive, Freeport-McMoRan’s James Flores, for $1.25 million — but it’s the various pro-Vitter commercials that are all over the airwaves.

So what’s Vitter’s message? Well, it’s that Angelle, a onetime Democrat who switched parties and who’s now running as a conservative alternative to Vitter, might as well be President Barack Obama. Vitter has used this tactic against a Democratic opponent before, but that was for a federal race in which his opponent’s party membership was at least somewhat relevant. Here, the connection is tenuous at best, and the claim utterly gratuitous. Oh, and so much for sympathy for the poor: Vitter also uses the ad to dredge up a favorite boogeyman: free cellphones for welfare recipients, or “Obama phones.” The program is often funded by customer fees imposed by telecom companies and predates Obama, according to factcheck.org.

Other ads try to tag Republican Jay Dardenne as pro-abortion rights, despite his longtime opposition, as well as pro-immigrant. One attempts to make a scandal out of a government trip abroad that Dardenne’s office organized. The ad casts it as a taxpayer-funded birthday party. Dardenne, who labeled Vitter a liar at the WDSU forum, responded with a hearty defense of the trip’s results, including three international cultural accords. Whether that’s the best use of taxpayer money is open to debate, but such trips are actually pretty routine.

Of course, Vitter’s been hit, too, including by a pair of super PACS that are highlighting his 2007 prostitution scandal. That’s fair game, even if everyone knows the deal. So is an Angelle ad criticizing Vitter for his Common Core flip-flop.

What’s missing from all of this is an exchange of ideas on how to shore up the budget, keep the state’s universities from going under, fix the roads, save the coast and address all manner of woes that the next governor will have to tackle.

But hey, we’ve got almost three weeks to go. No time like the present.

Stephanie Grace’s email address is sgrace@theadvocate.com.