Eddie Rispone and John Bel Edwards STOCK

Eddie Rispone (left) and John Bel Edwards (right)

Gov. John Bel Edwards and contractor Eddie Rispone will share a stage Wednesday in the first, and only, televised debate of the gubernatorial runoff, with Edwards likely to accuse Rispone of hiding out from voters and Rispone likely to tag the governor as an anti-business liberal.

The one-hour event will air beginning at 7 p.m. on Louisiana Public Broadcasting stations throughout the state.

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The debate takes place at a time when the two candidates are essentially tied in advance of the Nov. 16 runoff, according to a poll conducted from Oct. 24-26 by John Couvillon for Nexstar television stations in Louisiana. Edwards had 48%, Rispone 46% and 6% were undecided. The poll had a margin of error of 4 percentage points. 

“My sense is that’s an extremely close race and hasn’t been settled yet,” said George Kennedy, a veteran Baton Rouge-based media consultant. “A candidate can help himself with this debate.”

The benefits could begin paying off as soon as Saturday when the weeklong early voting period begins. About 28% of the votes cast in the primary occurred during early voting.

After the Oct. 12 primary left Edwards short of an outright majority that would have propelled him to a second term, he and Rispone have engaged in an ad war that hasn’t offered a live skirmish.

So far, Rispone has refused to appear in another debate with Edwards or at any other joint forum. That - and his refusal so far to spell out his plans if elected governor - has given Edwards a line of attack in the two weeks since the primary.

“I don’t think he has a good understanding of state government,” Edwards told WWL radio listeners on Tuesday. “I don’t think he has a plan for our future.”

Rispone has appeared only twice at public events since the primary while Edwards makes himself available for questions on nearly a daily basis.

Voters have been hearing from both candidates — and from outside groups — with constant television ads.

Rispone is pitching himself as a job-creating businessman with an outsider’s perspective as a first-time candidate.

How he would create jobs, Rispone hasn’t explained, other than to say that he wants to convene a convention to rewrite the state’s constitution.

Rispone appears to be betting on his warm embrace of President Donald Trump and Trump’s favorite causes. The Couvillon poll showed that Louisiana voters approve of Trump’s job performance by 54%-41% and that by 54%-36% they oppose the impeachment inquiry launched by Democrats in Washington. Vice President Mike Pence came to Baton Rouge on Monday to raise money for Rispone.

“We need to do something different,” appears to be Rispone’s go-to line, without saying what that “something” should be.

Edwards presents himself as a governor who has worked with Republicans and Democrats alike to move Louisiana forward. He downplays that he is a Democrat.

In recent days, Edwards has highlighted Rispone’s ties to former Gov. Bobby Jindal, who left office in 2016.

“What I don’t want to do is put the state of Louisiana right back in the ditch as we were four years ago,” Edwards told listeners on Newell Normand’s WWL radio talk show Tuesday. Rispone declined an invitation to appear, Normand said. 

The Rispone campaign did not respond to a request to comment for this article.

Rispone surrogates have attacked Edwards for tax increases that he and the Republican-controlled Legislature approved and for his chumminess with trial attorneys who have sued oil and gas companies.

Edwards led the primary with 46.6% compared with 27.4% for Rispone and 23.6% for U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, who didn’t advance to the runoff because he finished third.

One of the key questions for the runoff is whether Edwards can capture at least 10%-15% of the Abraham supporters, which political analysts say is a must for him to win the runoff.

Edwards has already been to northeast Louisiana to remind voters that Rispone hammered Abraham during the primary with attack ads that angered establishment Republicans, especially Rispone’s claim that Abraham voted 300 times with liberal House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

“There are lots of folks upset across northeast Louisiana,” said state Rep. Bubba Chaney, R-Rayville, saying Abraham “has been a friend, doctor or vet to lots of people in this area. They don’t appreciate the Eddie Rispone stick-the-knife-and-twist approach.”

An appeal by Trump to vote for Rispone, however, might be enough to pull nearly all the Abraham voters into the Republican candidate’s column. The congressman endorsed Rispone in his election-night concession speech. 

Edwards, Rispone and Abraham faced off three times for televised debates during the primary.

Roy Fletcher, a veteran political consultant, said the dynamics of Wednesday’s debate will differ as Edwards and Rispone go head to head.

Fletcher expects Edwards to aggressively paint Rispone’s blank slate by saying the businessman wants to knock the working poor off of Medicaid and secretly wants to use the constitutional convention to eliminate the homestead exemption and to merge public colleges and universities — all of which are goals of many conservatives.

Fletcher expects Rispone to attack Edwards as a tax-and-spend liberal who would rather grow government than create jobs.

Edwards has the advantage of having a far greater knowledge of state government and the issues.

But Fletcher noted that knowing more can work against an incumbent facing a folksy challenge from the right.

In the 1980 presidential campaign, President Jimmy Carter delivered a detailed answer about health care and then accused Ronald Reagan, his Republican challenger, of not supporting Medicare.

Reagan smiled, cocked his head and delivered the devastating line, “There you go again,” to dismiss the accusation. Carter had no comeback and went on to lose the election.

Fletcher predicts that Rispone will trot out a similar line. Indeed, in the first debate during the primary, the businessman scored points by riffing off his status as the political newcomer.

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

Edwards, Fletcher said, will have to have a clever response for Rispone.

Email Tyler Bridges at tbridges@theadvocate.com.