Louisiana voters will head to the polls this fall to decide whether Gov. John Bel Edwards will have a second term in office beginning in 2020. But the past week marked a pivotal point in the 2019 race, with campaigns roaring full-steam ahead to Election Day.

Edwards launched a three-minute web video making his pitch for a second term. One of his Republican challengers, Baton Rouge businessman Eddie Rispone, held meet-and-greet events across south Louisiana. And another, U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, of Alto, held fundraisers in north Louisiana and Baton Rouge.

The campaigns also have begun fully staffing up, with seasoned political operatives taking up posts across all three.

Other candidates could still enter the race — the qualifying period ends in August — but all signs are pointing to Edwards, Rispone and Abraham as the main figures in Louisiana’s gubernatorial election this cycle with the clock winding down for many others to competitively enter the race.

“If anything, I’m surprised that it took as long as it did for that to happen,” Edwards said in a meeting with The Advocate editorial board this week, when asked about the race fully coming into motion this month.

Several Republicans, including Attorney General Jeff Landry, spent last fall calling for U.S. Sen. John Kennedy to announce whether he would run so that members of the GOP could start to rally around known Republican candidates in the race. Kennedy officially announced the first week of December that he would not run — a move that surprised many observers.

Edwards announced shortly after he won the 2015 race that he would seek a second term, and he has spent the years since building up his campaign war chest.

“Louisiana is moving in the right direction, but we’ve still got lots of work to do,” Edwards said in the video that rolled out Tuesday. “Serving as your governor has been one of the greatest honors of my life, and with your support, I look forward to four more years of even greater prosperity and opportunities.”

The three-minute ad doesn’t identify Edwards, the only Democratic governor in the Deep South, as a Democrat. Its timing coincides with the launch of Edwards’ new campaign website johnbelforlouisiana.com, which prominently highlights his military career, family history in law enforcement and the "bipartisan" effort to stabilize the state budget but, again, doesn't mention his alliance with the Democratic Party.

“I realize this campaign won’t be easy,” Edwards said in the ad, predicting that “out-of-state interest groups” supporting his opponents will spend “millions” attacking him.

The election is Oct. 12. A Nov. 16 runoff will take place between the top two vote-getters if no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote in the primary.

Edwards, who won what was thought to be a long-shot campaign for governor in 2015, has found himself at odds with several Republican officeholders, including Landry and Kennedy, as well as the state House Republican leadership.

Edwards took office facing a significant state budget shortfall that threatened deep cuts to higher education and health care. Seven special sessions and three regular legislative sessions later, the state finished its most recent budget year with a surplus, thanks largely to an increase in the state sales tax that lawmakers approved.

“As tough as things are, we still are not Washington, D.C.,” he told The Advocate. “I don’t want to become Washington, D.C. because it is incredibly dysfunctional.

“I think we’ve done a lot of good things in a bipartisan way here."

But there are others on the opposing side who say that, although Edwards has positioned himself on the more conservative end of the spectrum, compared with national Democrats, Louisiana needs a Republican governor. Edwards is the only Democrat statewide office holder in Louisiana, and recent statewide elections have largely been blowouts in favor of Republican candidates.

Abraham's campaign quickly struck back at the governor's re-election video.

"Louisiana has seen the largest tax increase in state history, years of out-migration by the thousands, one of the highest unemployment rates in the country, failing grades for fiscal policy, and one of the weakest economies in the U.S. under John Bel Edwards’ watch," he said. "If he's bragging about those as first term achievements, I'd hate to see what the next four years would look like. Louisiana is clearly on the wrong path, and the only way to correct it is with a new governor."

The Republican Governors Association, which has identified the Louisiana election as a top priority this year, also quickly released a statement striking back at Edwards after his announcement video became public. This year's race for Louisiana governor is expected to draw significant national interest and has already been highlighted as a priority for the GOP nationally.

"John Bel Edwards does not deserve a second term as Louisiana’s chief executive,” association spokesman John Burke said. “After three years of John Bel Edwards’ regressive, anti-growth agenda, it’s clear that Louisiana needs a fresh start and new leadership in 2019.”

Rispone, who has sought to highlight his background as a successful businessman, said during a recent meet-and-greet with Greater Baton Rouge Young Republicans that he has received encouragement from Republican governors in other states who also were in business before deciding to seek public office.

“We have a challenge on our hands,” he said. “It’s very difficult to replace an incumbent.”

Edwards previously served in the state House as a representative from his hometown in Tangipahoa Parish. He has spent the past three years actively fundraising and announced earlier this month that he had raised $3.8 million in 2018, giving the governor more than $8.3 million cash-on-hand as he makes the case for a second term.

Abraham, who is in his third term in Congress, hasn't revealed how much he has raised ahead of next month's reporting deadline.

Meanwhile, Rispone has said he's committed to devoting millions of his own money to his campaign. Earlier this month, Rispone's team announced that the ISC Constructors co-founder would report $5.5 million cash on hand, about $5 million of which Rispone has put up himself. He raised half a million after establishing a campaign committee in October.

Asked about his opponents, Edwards noted that both had supported Edwards' predecessor Bobby Jindal, a Republican who unsuccessfully ran for president while his home-state favorability ratings plunged. 

“I think if you listen to what they say, it becomes clear that they liked where we were three years ago,” Edwards said. “I’m quite sure that the majority of the people in our state are not going to be going back.”

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp.