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Donald Trump Jr. speaks during a Republican rally Monday, October 7, 2019, at the Cajundome Convention Center in Lafayette, La.

A week ago, Gov. John Bel Edwards appeared to be coasting toward a possible outright victory in the Oct. 12 primary election, a win that would buck Louisiana’s partisan trends and keep the Deep South’s only Democratic governor in power.

Since then, Republicans have brought out their big guns to try to keep the governor from winning reelection by garnering more than 50% of the vote Saturday, thereby forcing him into a runoff election with one of two major GOP opponents.

President Donald Trump attacked the governor on Twitter before announcing Sunday he will visit Lake Charles the day before the election to rally support for Eddie Rispone and U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, the two main Republican contenders for governor. That will bookend visits by Vice President Mike Pence, who rallied with the two candidates Saturday in New Orleans, and Donald Trump Jr., who stumped at the Cajundome in Lafayette on Monday.

Two well-funded Republican organizations, the Republican Governors Association, of Washington, D.C., and Truth in Politics, founded by GOP donor and Cajun Industries founder Lane Grigsby, launched separate attack ads Thursday against Edwards over a 2017 sexual harassment scandal involving Johnny Anderson, a former top aide to the governor.

Republicans are seeking to blunt Edwards’ support among female voters with the Truth in Politics ad, a striking spot that features Juanita Washington recounting sexual harassment allegations she made against Anderson, which led to his resignation. And they hope Trump’s visit will help tie Edwards to a national Democratic Party from which the governor has tried hard to distance himself.

“Can he survive it? Certainly,” Baton Rouge-based pollster Bernie Pinsonat said. “But it has the potential from keeping him from going over 50%. ... Anything that upsets that delicate balance for him is a danger.”

A visit from the president and attack ads centered around Edwards’ hiring of Anderson were not unexpected in the race. But neither was expected until after the primary, when Edwards would face either Abraham or Rispone in a head-to-head matchup, with the Republican benefiting from the consolidation of party support.

Grigsby, who co-founded Truth in Politics in 2017 as an effort to hammer Edwards on taxes and other issues, said he didn’t want to hold back the Anderson spot with the governor appearing close to an outright win in the primary. “Why run the risk?” he said. Truth in Politics has sought to keep the Anderson controversy in the spotlight, and is expected to hold a press conference about a lawsuit related to the case in the coming days.

Aside from Truth in Politics’ ad, Grigsby is also looking for other ways to stop Edwards from winning reelection. Last month, he gave $100,000 to a political organization called Movement for Change that is running ads on a host of African American radio stations throughout the state in support of Omar Dantzler, the only black candidate in the race. Dantzler, of Hammond, is also the only other Democrat in the race besides Edwards, though he is far less known and is polling in the low single digits.

“The white Democrats don’t really listen to the black community except for every four years,” Grigsby said of his support for Dantzler. “I think the black community should pay close attention to what leads to the betterment of the community.”

Louis Gurvich, chairman of the Louisiana Republican Party, said the Trump visit came together suddenly on Sunday, turning from a tweet to a scheduled event in the span of a few hours. That was the same day the White House struck back against Edwards over comments he made tying the closure of a LaPlace steel mill to the president’s trade war.

“We’re bringing in the big guns because the big guns — President Trump and his entourage — are extremely popular in Louisiana,” Gurvich said. “It makes good sense to bring them in and show the difference between John Bel’s administration and what our folks would do.”

“We have plenty of ammunition leftover for the runoff,” he added.

The Edwards campaign has campaigned on a “politics over party” platform that highlights his record working with Republicans in the state Legislature. Just last week, he released an ad where several prominent Republicans, including state Senate President John Alario, endorsed him. The governor’s campaign has even touted his working relationship with Trump, whom Edwards has visited nine times.

“The partisan forces in Washington are panicking because they were slow to realize that Gov. Edwards is supported by a wide range of Louisianians, from every political party and every background,” Edwards spokesman Eric Holl said in a statement. “That’s why he’s in position to win on primary day and is leading his opponents in head-to-head polling by wide margins.”

Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh said the last-minute visit by Trump, who will appear at the 7,500-seat James E. Sudduth Coliseum at 7 p.m. Friday, shows the president views the governor’s race here as an important one. However, Trump — like most major Republican figures — is not expected to endorse either candidate.

“(Trump) thinks either one of them would be a fantastic governor,” he said during a call with reporters Monday, a reference to Abraham and Rispone.

Two independent polls released Monday showed Edwards in the mid-40s. Pollster John Couvillon’s survey for the Louisiana Association of Health Plans show Edwards at 47% when including “leaners,” while a poll conducted by Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy on behalf of Gray Television put him at 45%, with 10% undecided. Both showed Rispone leading Abraham, though Couvillon showed Rispone’s lead slipping slightly from his previous poll.

Edwards said Sunday his opponents got “very nervous” earlier in the week when several private polls showed him above 50%.

“They got nervous and desperate,” he said. “The extent to which they’re successful, we won’t know until Saturday.”

A day after the the Anderson ads launched, the Democratic Governors Association, based in Washington, D.C., gave another $1.2 million to Gumbo PAC, the Super PAC supporting Edwards. Meanwhile, the RGA dropped another $750,000 into its Louisiana PAC. 

Edwards' campaign has fought back against the attack ads against him for his hiring of Anderson, who resigned his post as deputy chief of staff for programs and planning in 2017. The ads excoriate the governor for hiring Anderson in the first place, given his stint as chairman of the Southern University Board of Supervisors a decade earlier that drew sexual harassment complaints.

The governor’s campaign trotted out the endorsement of Jill Craft, who represented Washington during the ordeal. Over the weekend, his campaign launched an ad featuring several women backing up Edwards’ record on women’s issues.

Greg Rigamer, a New Orleans pollster who has tracked the race since early September for private clients, said he now thinks it is too close to call.

“I liken it to a gauge on a needle — it’s straight up,” Rigamer said. “It doesn’t take much to nudge it left or right.”

Staff writers Elizabeth Crisp and Tyler Bridges contributed to this story.

Email Sam Karlin at skarlin@theadvocate.com