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Gov. John Bel Edwards speaks at the lectern as the Press Club of Baton Rouge hosts a forum for the three gubernatorial candidates Monday Sept. 23, 2019. Edwards, a Democrat, faced his two Republican challengers, U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, R-Alto, and businessman Eddie Rispone, of Baton Rouge, left at table background.

Gov. John Bel Edwards pushed back against his Republican opponents at a gubernatorial candidate forum Monday, as Congressman Ralph Abraham continued to train his focus on the Democratic governor and businessman Eddie Rispone sought to distinguish himself as the leading Republican in the race.

The three faced a host of policy-oriented questions from reporters at the Press Club of Baton Rouge, and each offered few specifics but attacked one another and drew a handful of distinctions. The event came four days after the first televised debate in the race, and ahead of an early voting period that starts Saturday for the Oct. 12 primary.

The governor, who has come under attack by the two Republicans and outside GOP organizations trying to unseat him, tied his opponents directly to former Gov. Bobby Jindal, warning they would bring about a return to his tenure and the budget shortfalls associated with it. He defended himself from several barbs made by his opponents in recent weeks, such as the state’s current $500 million budget surplus that the Republicans paint as evidence the state is overtaxing.

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“If this election comes down to whether surpluses are better than deficits, I like my chances,” Edwards said.

He brought out a new attack line against Abraham, waving a copy of a lawsuit Abraham’s farm filed against a gas pipeline firm about a decade ago when defending his record on legacy lawsuits.

The governor accused his opponents of “distorting” his record, and defended his handling of Medicaid expansion, criminal justice reforms and the Industrial Tax Exemption Program, a controversial tax break for manufacturers, which for years allowed the state to giveaway local government taxes. The governor overhauled the program to allow local governments to have some say in their taxes the state gave away.

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Abraham, whose lead over Rispone came into question with a new poll released late Sunday, continued to hammer Edwards on taxes and the economy, mostly ignoring his fellow Republican despite Rispone continuing to take aim at the congressman.

The congressman, who represents much of northeast Louisiana and the parts of the Florida parishes, again highlighted his position as the only candidate in the race to support the death penalty. Edwards won’t disclose his personal feelings on it, while Rispone opposes it – and embraced President Donald Trump. He vowed to “reverse” Edwards’ changes on ITEP, which gave locals a say in whether to exempt their property taxes, among other revamped policies. Abraham also made clear he is opposed to abortion rights, a position held by all three major candidates.

“The current governor is killing our state,” he said. “We’re last.”

The two Republicans in the race have both made their support for Trump known, and Rispone said Monday he wants to help Trump “build the wall.” Rispone’s first television ads in the race introducing himself to voters focused almost entirely on his adoration for Trump.

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Rispone, who has tried to play up his status as a businessman and an outsider, again chastised both of his opponents as politicians. He argued the state needs a constitutional convention to usher in a “sea change” with an outsider at the helm, though he had few specifics on what exactly he wants to change in the Constitution.

“We need to do something different,” Rispone said. “We’ve had politicians on both sides of the aisle, and we’re still at the bottom.”

Rispone also piggybacked on Edwards’ attack of Abraham for suing Gulf South Pipeline Company for trashing Abraham's family farm in Richland Parish while building a pipeline, calling it something “plaintiffs attorneys do, not congressmen.” The lawsuit was filed by Abraham’s son-in-law, Dustin Morris, as well as Abraham Farms LLC.

Abraham said the lawsuit was against a subcontractor that “wouldn’t come clean up their mess,” and noted it was resolved without court action.

While Rispone and Abraham hammered Edwards on a wide range of issues, they were careful not to blast some of the more popular policies he has implemented. Abraham has repeatedly taken aim at Medicaid expansion, for instance, while Rispone launched an attack ad on Edwards accusing him of letting dangerous criminals out of prison early with criminal justice changes.

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But when asked about both issues, the two made certain to criticize Edwards’ handling of those policies, not the policies themselves. They said they would examine Medicaid expansion to make sure ineligible people are off the rolls and that it is sustainable, but not roll back the expansion. The 2019 Louisiana Survey, conducted by LSU researchers, found Medicaid expansion and the state’s criminal justice reforms have support of 76% and 70% of Louisiana residents, respectively.

The forum came a day after a new poll in the race found – for the first time – Rispone leading Abraham, at 21% to 18%, within the 4.2% margin of error. The Republicans are jockeying for a spot in a runoff with Edwards, which only becomes necessary if the Democratic governor does not win more than 50% on Oct. 12. John Couvillon, who conducted the poll of 550 people, said while it may be too early to conclude Abraham has ceded his second-place position, the poll is an “early warning sign.” It represents a change from another poll done by Couvillon last week ahead of the debate that found Abraham maintaining a comfortable lead. 

The survey, paid for by the Louisiana Association of Health Plans, had Edwards nearing the coveted 50% threshold, at 46%, or 48% when asking undecided voters to which candidate they are leaning. Abraham's campaign slammed the poll as inaccurate while Rispone's camp lauded it as proof the candidate is surging. 

The second televised debate of the race Thursday at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette, where all three candidates will meet again. The major candidates have all agreed to three TV debates, with the last being in Shreveport three days before the Oct. 12 primary.

Email Sam Karlin at skarlin@theadvocate.com