Photos: D-Day 70th anniversary _lowres

Advocate staff photo by SCOTT THRELKELD -- Senator David Vitter speaks during ceremonies commemorating the 70th anniversary of D-Day Friday, June 6, 2014, at the National WWII Museum in New Orleans. Seventeen veterans were presented with the French Legion of Honor for helping liberate France from Nazi rule. The daylong event featured special exhibits, films, speakers, music and the chance for WWII veterans, now in their 80s and 90s, a change to get together.

Editor’s note: This is part of an occasional series of columns on the 2015 gubernatorial contenders. Read about John Bel Edwards and Jay Dardenne. Next up: Scott Angelle.

You could call David Vitter the juggernaut in this year’s gubernatorial race.

Vitter, the second-term U.S. senator who previously served in the U.S. House and the state Legislature, has far more campaign money than his three major rivals. He’s got more endorsements, too, including from a number of national figures. In public, anyway, Vitter’s been most aggressive about consulting with policy leaders — in well-publicized but closed-door meetings — and in putting together a written platform.

You also could call him the field’s hardliner. Up against Democrat John Bel Edwards, Democrat-turned-Republican Scott Angelle and moderate Republican Jay Dardenne, Vitter’s the one with a reputation as an uncompromising ideologue. Among his recent headline-grabbing moves was his crusade against Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s confirmation, all because she supported the policies of the president who appointed her.

As he campaigns for the state’s top job, though, Vitter’s trying to project a third image: that of a healer. Seriously.

During a recent interview, I asked what accomplishments from his congressional tenure he’d like to highlight, and his answer wasn’t exactly Vitteresque.

“I think if you look at each candidate’s real record,” he said, “I have the strongest record of bipartisan accomplishments of anyone, by a lot.”

Vitter is famously savvy about identifying the mood of the moment, and this year everyone seems fed up with Gov. Bobby Jindal’s rigid approach. And the senator, who cited the passage of the Water Resources Reform and Development Act (along with California Democrat Barbara Boxer) that addressed state priorities such as flood control and dredging, is clearly trying to soften his edges.

“Being the governor means getting things done and producing,” he said.

If unity is the message, Vitter is hardly an obvious messenger. Back in his days as a state representative, he earned a reputation as a prickly reformer with a self-righteous streak. Best known for pushing term limits (along with opponent Dardenne, who handled the measure in the Senate), he didn’t hesitate to embarrass his colleagues, such as when he fought to release information on the free Tulane University scholarships that many had awarded to their friends and relatives. When he first ran for Congress in 1999, politicians eagerly lined up behind his opponent, former Gov. Dave Treen.

He’s pulled similar maneuvers in the Senate, including his attempt to prevent members of Congress and their staffs from accessing the employer-paid health insurance subsidy that most Americans enjoy — all part of a convoluted fight over the president’s Affordable Care Act. His push has reportedly infuriated politicians on both sides of the aisle.

Asked if he cares, Vitter responded, “No, I don’t.”

Yet Vitter’s clearly found a way to get along better, even with former adversaries. They include House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, who would sometimes battle with Vitter when they represented nearby legislative districts in Jefferson Parish, and U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany, R-Lafayette, who survived a face-off with a more-conservative colleague who was seen as Vitter’s candidate. Both now have endorsed Vitter for governor.

On issues as well, Vitter’s shifted, at least somewhat. He signed a version of the Americans for Tax Reform pledge — the same pledge Jindal has cited in his refusal to consider many options for addressing the state’s budget crisis — and stands by it, at the federal level, anyway. The state, he said, is a “completely different planet.”

“I’ve said very plainly that I’m running to confront our challenges here in Louisiana head on, and not to play politics with it, and certainly not to kick the can down the road and to run for president in Iowa and New Hampshire,” he said. “So I’m not going to be constrained at looking at fiscal challenges the way Bobby has been.”

Jindal has said he would only consider eliminating refundable tax credits; Vitter wouldn’t make that distinction.

“If we get rid of a refundable tax credit or even a nonrefundable tax credit that’s essentially corporate welfare or a giveaway program … I don’t want to be put in some box that somehow we can’t consider that.”

In addition, Vitter wants to take a look at the many areas where money is dedicated, leaving health care and higher education vulnerable to cuts whenever there’s a crisis. The one exception is transportation, which he says needs even more protection.

Vitter’s opened the door to accepting the Medicaid expansion that Jindal refuses to consider as well, although he, like his opponents, would insist on reforms for health insurance for the poor.

Still, the old, in-your-face Vitter sometimes rears his head — like the day before the Legislature killed a Jindal-backed but widely criticized “religious freedom” measure that could have allowed for discrimination against same-sex couples.

While other politicians hoped the issue would just go away, Vitter not only reiterated his support on Twitter but dismissed opponents’ concerns as baseless and ill-informed. “I support the bill,” he said, “because I’ve read the bill.”

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