Gov. John Bel Edwards and U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham traded blows Thursday night during the first televised debate of the governor’s race while the third major candidate, businessman Eddie Rispone, mocked the two as politicians engaged in a cat fight.

Abraham, a Republican, seemed intent from the beginning on establishing himself as the best conservative alternative to the only Democratic governor in the Deep South, repeatedly attacking Edwards’ record on taxes and the state’s economy.

Edwards defended his record – noting that under his watch, the state has gone from a budget deficit to a surplus and that he expanded Medicaid to 460,000 working poor. Their differences led the governor and Abraham to engage in more than one heated back-and-forth, with each man accusing the other of being a liar.

Rispone, also a Republican, seemed almost like a bystander at times, but he brought attention to himself by riffing off his status as a businessman who has not sought public office before.

“I’m just watching two politicians go after each other,” he said at one point.

The hour-long debate at LSU’s Student Union theater was televised statewide by Nexstar and included questions about vaping by teenagers, gas taxes, the state’s economy, abortion, guns, President Donald Trump and Medicaid expansion.

Abraham, a third-term congressman from northeast Louisiana, portrayed Edwards as an inveterate taxer who is to blame for the state’s weak economy in recent years. He vowed to cut taxes while also promising to invest in popular spending programs like the TOPS tuition program – yet he did not offer specifics on where the revenue would come from, other than to promise that the state would have a stronger economy under him.

“We do have the highest sales tax in the nation, that’s why we don’t have the jobs,” Abraham said. “We have lost jobs more than any other state in the nation. It’s due to taxes, taxes taxes.”

At 9.45 cents per $1, Louisiana actually has the third highest state and local sales tax combined in the country, behind Arkansas and Tennessee, which have a 9.47% combined rate.

While the national economy has grown, Louisiana has about 12,000 fewer jobs today than in 2015, the year before Edwards took office, according to figures from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. Economists mostly blame this on the slowdown in the state’s oil and gas industry.

Edwards focused on economic statistics in his favor, noting that Louisiana, at 4.3%, has its lowest unemployment rate in 11 years. He said a growing economy has generated the budget surplus, which is expected to be $500 million in the fiscal year that ended on June 30.

Rispone gave general answers to questions about the economy, promising to use his business smarts to create jobs but providing few specifics.

The three candidates did agree on some issues. Asked about a six-week abortion ban that Edwards signed into law earlier this year, all three said they do not support exemptions for cases in which the child would be born from rape or incest. Rispone praised Edwards for signing into law the so-called “fetal heartbeat” bill, which has not gone into effect pending a court challenge in Mississippi.

The three candidates also offered strong support for gun rights, fully funding the TOPS scholarship program and working with Trump for the state’s betterment.

They disagreed on whether to raise gas taxes to help reduce Louisiana’s $14 billion backlog on improving roads, bridges and other infrastructure.

Edwards said he supported an increase in the gas tax, noting that it has not been upped in 30 years, Abraham said he would be willing to support such a measure if approved by the Legislature while Rispone opposed an increase.

Rispone repeatedly set himself apart from both of his opponents, pitching himself as an outsider and ally of President Trump, continuing a narrative he has cultivated through millions of dollars worth of television advertising.

His only major swipe at his Republican rival Thursday night was accusing Abraham of not being loyal enough to Trump in the 2016 presidential race. Rispone was referring to a statement by Abraham that Trump should consider stepping aside after a recording emerged during the campaign of Trump years earlier bragging about sexually assaulting women.

Thursday night’s debate came on the heels of a controversial decision by Rispone this week to try to upend the race by launching an attack ad against Abraham that calls his fellow Republican a liar and questions Abraham’s conservative credentials. Rispone’s move has prompted several leading conservatives, including U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins, who represents Acadiana, to endorse Abraham after having been neutral.

Rispone, who is self-funding his campaign to the tune of $11.5 million, defended the decision after the debate, saying he’s a “fighter” who only hit back after Super PACs affiliated with his opponents attacked him.

Rispone has been in third place behind Abraham, despite spending about four times as much money to air ads that praised Trump and touted Rispone’s business record and conservative positions. The two Republicans are battling for second place and would win a spot in the runoff against Edwards as long as the incumbent doesn’t secure more than 50%. If Edwards scores above 50%, he wins the primary outright, a prospect that analysts say is possible on Oct. 12.

A poll released by Nexstar on Wednesday, conducted last week, showed that Edwards was several points shy of 50%.

Moderators at one point asked pointed questions of each candidate that highlighted vulnerabilities – some of which have already been used by their opponents. The most significant topic that had yet to be broached in the race was Edwards’ hiring of Johnny Anderson, who resigned his post as deputy chief of staff of programs and planning 2017 amid sexual harassment allegations. Asked why he hired Anderson even though he had faced similar allegations a decade prior, Edwards said investigation into those accusations found no wrongdoing, and that at the time he thought Anderson was a “good, competent person.”

Abraham was asked why he didn’t resign from Congress to run for governor given that he has missed more votes than any other member of Congress this year. He didn’t directly offer an answer but said he still serves his constituents well.

Rispone’s image as an outsider came under scrutiny when moderators dredged up his financial support of more than $1 million to Republican politicians, including former Gov. Bobby Jindal and former U.S. Sen. David Vitter, among others. He said his outsider claim refers to never having run for political office before.

The debate did not include three minor candidates: Oscar “Omar” Dantzler, a Democrat from Hammond; Gary Landrieu, a no-party candidate from Metairie; and Patrick “Live Wire” Landry, a Democrat from New Orleans. They did not meet the guidelines established by Nexstar, which required candidates to have raised at least $50,000 in direct contributions, with 25% coming from in-state contributors, and scored at least 5% in polls.

Email Sam Karlin at skarlin@theadvocate.com