Whether they mean it or not, people always say they want their elections to be about ideas. Well, don’t look now, Louisiana, but a clash of ideas is exactly what we’ve got in our tightly contested U.S. Senate race.

You wouldn’t necessarily know it by watching all those attack ads on television, despite the many millions of dollars that candidates and outside interest groups are spending to air them. People who fact-check for a living have labeled commercial after commercial as deceptive. Seriously folks, hit the mute button. That’s what it’s there for.

But if you want to know what’s up for grabs, listen to the candidates themselves. Last week’s debate on Louisiana Public Broadcasting, the first of just two to feature all the major candidates, offered a good glimpse of how they differ philosophically (note: I was one of four journalists on the panel).

Democratic U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, for example, offered some fixes for the Affordable Care Act, including a “copper plan” that would offer fewer benefits and cost less than what the law allows today. But she defended her “yes” vote, said the new order is far better than funneling uninsured patients into expensive emergency room care and contended that the law should stay.

Republican U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy pitched a full repeal and said he’d pay for keeping one of the law’s most popular provisions by offering a tax credit conditioned on insurance companies not charging higher rates to those with pre-existing conditions. Col. Rob Maness, another Republican and ACA opponent, said he’d address the issue of pre-existing conditions by allowing customers to carry insurance from job to job.

Landrieu argued that the federal minimum wage should rise and that stronger laws to enforce pay equity should be adopted. Cassidy opposed a minimum wage hike and claimed workers are more hurt by the Affordable Care Act because some employers have laid people off or reduced workers’ hours in order to dodge the health care law’s requirements.

While Landrieu trumpeted her vote for the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act that makes it easier for women to sue if they discover past discrimination, Cassidy derided it as a trial lawyer bonanza.

Maness, meanwhile, came out against a national minimum wage hike but said he’d be open to state-level increases and agreed with Cassidy that current law is sufficient to avert discrimination.

To ease the burden on college graduates, Landrieu pitched a bill to allow them to refinance student loans at lower rates and another to double the value of popular Pell Grants, which she said are worth less than 30 percent of their onetime value. Cassidy proposed eliminating fraud in the Pell Grant program but focused most of his answer on improving the economy so it would provide better jobs for graduates — which, in his telling, means canning the Affordable Care Act. Maness offered a similar response.

The candidates also differed on whether climate change is real and is a threat to low-lying south Louisiana. Landrieu agreed with most scientists that it’s a concern, while the Republicans voiced doubts. But none of them said the federal government should adopt policies to address the issue.

But there’s a still bigger contrast of ideas on the table, even beyond clear differences on philosophy over the federal government’s role. On Nov. 4, Louisiana voters are being asked to decide just what they want in a senator.

Landrieu’s pitching a tried and true approach, the same one that helped her survive in a state that’s grown ever more Republican. She contends that the main issue is who’s best positioned, and most willing and able, to help Louisiana. That’s why she’s talking about her bill to award offshore oil royalties to Louisiana, about the loan forgiveness and aid she secured after hurricanes Katrina and Rita, about her chairmanship of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee and her full-throated support for industry interests. It’s why every other word out of her mouth seems to be “clout.”

Cassidy offers a different vision. His campaign is almost singularly focused on national issues and party politics. He claims Landrieu’s out of step with Louisiana’s conservatism and that her advocacy for oil and gas interests is moot as long as Democrats hold the majority and Harry Reid sets the agenda. More than anything, Cassidy’s strategy relies upon linking Landrieu to unpopular President Barack Obama.

Maness, a tea party candidate, dismisses both as career politicians and argues that an outsider should get a chance, although he agrees with Cassidy on most substantive questions.

Granted, none of this makes for a particularly colorful campaign. Unlike in other states, nobody here’s talking about castrating hogs or fighting over portable fans.

The choices, though, are pretty clear. These days, that’s about the best you can hope for.

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