And now the real race begins.

The field in the gubernatorial campaign was set when the qualifying period ended Thursday, giving voters the next six weeks to settle on their candidate. The primary is Oct. 24.

“I’m ready for a sprint to the finish,” Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne tweeted on Friday.

The race has started slowly, but now all of the candidates except Dardenne are beaming campaign messages in televised ads, which for decades have been the most effective way to engage voters. Also airing ads are an outside political action committee supporting Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle as well as groups supporting and opposing U.S. Sen. David Vitter.

A Republican from Metairie, Vitter remains the favorite, according to political analysts. He and his supporters easily wield the largest campaign fund, and his two-decade conservative record in Louisiana and Washington and his aggressive campaign tactics have made him unbeatable in seven elections dating back to 1991.

But Vitter has been unable to quash doubts about whether he has enough political juice to ensure a spot in the Nov. 21 runoff, and he appears to have lost ground in recent weeks.

Vitter’s favorable-to-unfavorable rating has dropped, said Verne Kennedy, a Florida-based pollster who surveys Louisiana campaigns for a group of politically connected businessmen and women. Kennedy’s survey found in May that for every 180 voters who liked Vitter, 100 did not. That now has dropped to 120 favorable to 100 unfavorable.

Angelle, a Republican from Breaux Bridge in St. Martin Parish, has shot up enough in most polls to pose a challenge to Vitter, after an expensive statewide television buy that introduced him to voters.

Most political analysts believe that state Rep. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat from Amite in Tangipahoa Parish, is virtually assured of a spot in the runoff because he won’t split his vote with any other major Democratic candidate.

Dardenne, a Republican from Baton Rouge, is running fourth, according to pollsters.

Five other candidates, who are not as well known and have raised little money, also qualified last week. They are: Beryl Billiot, no party-Kentwood; Cary Deaton, D-Metairie; Jeremy “JW” Odom, no party-Natchitoches; Eric Paul Orgeron, other-Metairie; and S.L. Simpson, D-Shreveport.

This will be the first closely contested race for governor since 2003, when Kathleen Blanco narrowly defeated Bobby Jindal. With her political fortunes sunk by her much-criticized response to Hurricane Katrina, Blanco didn’t seek re-election in 2007 in a race won handily by Jindal. He cruised to re-election in 2011.

Louisiana voters have become deeply disenchanted with Jindal, and that appears to be a factor in this year’s race, according to former Gov. Buddy Roemer, who won the office in 1987, lost it in 1991 and failed to win it back in 1995.

“The race is still wide open,” Roemer said, noting that not until Labor Day in 1987 did he begin his rise from last place to first in the primary.

“Vitter has the lead, but people are very skeptical,” Roemer added. “They feel like they were burned with the return engagement by Jindal, and they don’t want that to happen again. They are scared that the next governor will be like the current governor.”

The political landscape has changed dramatically in Louisiana since Blanco’s 2003 victory, which explains why Edwards would be considered an underdog to any Republican he faces. In the 2003 election, Democrats won six of the seven statewide elected offices, and both of the state’s U.S. senators were Democrats.

Today, Republicans hold all of those offices.

A majority of voters are no longer Democrats. But ironically, a plurality of registered voters still are — 46 percent, compared with 28 percent Republicans and 26 percent other parties or no party.

In short, many registered Democrats are pushing Republican candidates’ buttons in state elections.

The Democrats’ decline stems from a loss in support among white voters. In 2003, 56 percent of Democrats were white, while 42 percent were black. Today, 44 percent of Democrats are white, while 53 percent are black.

“As old white Democrats die off, you don’t have a sufficient enough number of young white Democrats to replace them,” said John Couvillon, a Baton Rouge-based pollster and demographer.

In the 2014 U.S. Senate election, then-Rep. Bill Cassidy, a Republican, ousted Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu with 56 percent of the vote.

Election results from that race show how Democratic support is concentrated in areas with large black populations: Caddo Parish in northwest Louisiana, the lightly populated Delta parishes in the northeast, the River Parishes, East Baton Rouge Parish and Orleans Parish.

Acadiana — which launched the careers of such Democrats as Edwin Edwards, John Breaux and Blanco — is now Republican.

Amidst that backdrop, the candidates are drawing clear distinctions among themselves.

Vitter, 54, has flipped on Common Core and is now a strong opponent, as he says in a campaign commercial that was airing last week. He favors changes that would limit lawsuits filed by trial lawyers representing environmentalists or people injured on the job.

A Rhodes scholar and Tulane Law School graduate, Vitter has been a consistent opponent of President Barack Obama in Washington. When he qualified, Vitter claimed he has the most detailed plan among the candidates, but, like the others, he has yet to spell out which tax breaks or spending programs he would eliminate to balance the budget next year.

Angelle, 53, is emphasizing his Cajun charm and his bipartisan service in both the Blanco and Jindal administrations as secretary of the Department of Natural Resources and chairman of the state’s Mineral Board. Angelle opposes Common Core and sides with social conservatives in supporting the teaching of creationism in public schools and a bill killed by the Legislature that would have prohibited the state from taking action against those opposed to same-sex marriages.

Asked how he would win given Vitter’s huge advantage in campaign dollars, Angelle told reporters on Tuesday, “This is an election, not an auction.”

Angelle graduated from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette with a degree in petroleum land management.

Edwards, 49, is completing his second term in the state House, where he has led the Democrats. “I’ve always stood up to Bobby Jindal,” he said Tuesday.

Unlike his three Republican opponents, Edwards strongly favors having Louisiana accept Medicaid dollars for working families under the Affordable Care Act. He voted for the measures approved by the Legislature in 2015 that trimmed tax breaks for business.

Edwards graduated from West Point and served as an officer in the Army as an airborne ranger before returning to Louisiana to get his law degree at LSU. He is an attorney. Unlike many Democrats in other states, he opposes abortion in most cases and is a defender of gun rights. He has worked closely with teachers unions in opposing Common Core.

Dardenne, 61, is touting his 27 years of public service, which include tenure on the East Baton Rouge Parish Metropolitan Council, in the state Senate, as secretary of state and for the past five years as lieutenant governor. In that job, he has headed the state’s tourism efforts, relentlessly promoting Louisiana as a good place to visit.

Dardenne is the only candidate who supports Common Core, and he proudly notes that, unlike Jindal, he never signed the anti-tax pledge championed by Grover Norquist. Dardenne, an LSU graduate and attorney, has pledged to run a more open administration than has Jindal and to be more accessible to the public and lawmakers.

“I will be in there getting my hands dirty with the Legislature, supporting and proposing efforts to make some fundamental changes in what we do in Louisiana because, clearly, we have to do that,” he said Tuesday.

Follow Tyler Bridges on Twitter, @TegBridges. For more coverage of the State Capitol, follow Louisiana Politics at