gubernatorialforum.041219 TS 90.jpg

U.S. Representative Ralph Abraham, R-La., left, shakes hands with Gov. John Bel Edwards, right, with moderator Robert Travis Scott, Public Affairs Research Council president, at center, just before the start of the non-partisan PAR gubernatorial forum held Thursday, April 11, 2019 at Crown Plaza Hotel Baton Rouge. Candidate Eddie Rispone had a prior engagement.

“I’m a small-government guy.” The way that Ralph Abraham, physician and pilot from north Louisiana, drawled out that statement, it sounded like 28 syllables.

That’s kind of how the current governor’s race feels.

Abraham, the Republican congressman from northeastern Louisiana, is a lanky man who talks and moves slowly but has the sharp eyes of a physician being told by a portly patient that there’s plenty of exercising going on.

His skepticism recently was focused on Gov. John Bel Edwards.

In his first forum with the incumbent, the physician engaged with some limited success against the equally in-character small-town lawyer, who spoke more crisply with an assurance that his opponent has not yet mastered his brief.

If Abraham, even more of a newcomer to state government issues than Edwards was when he ran in 2015, rather improved his rhetorical game from earlier efforts, he also did not exactly light up the jury box.

The discussion at the Public Affairs Research Council was almost on training wheels for Abraham. Questions were supplied in advance, moderator Robert Travis Scott kept control of the proceedings, and it was a business-friendly crowd who had just been to PAR’s annual luncheon.

And it was Abraham alone with Edwards, without fellow Republican challenger Eddie Rispone. The Baton Rouge businessman did not appear, citing a prior commitment.

More than a few folks wondered what was more important to Rispone, who is making his first bid for public office and needs all the attention he can get for name recognition.

Edwards and Abraham dueled over taxes and statistics about whether the economy is doing better, or whether Louisiana is a hellhole for business.

The challenger was much less sure-footed on the details of the giant Medicaid program, and Edwards once declared him “just wrong” on a meandering and confusing suggestion about how Abraham might change things.

Abraham scored best on car insurance rates. The bills in the Legislature on the subject involve abstruse discussions of legal procedure, but the congressman boiled it down: Anybody hurt in an accident ought to get compensated, but “that lawyer ought to have to go into court to prove the case.”

It’s a difficult argument for Edwards to counter. As a lawyer, he is strongly supported by the plaintiff bar.

However, in the format of the PAR event, Edwards did not get the chance to dive into the weeds and engage on the issue. It will be interesting to see how Edwards handles it in the future in a state with the second-highest car insurance rates in the nation. But if Abraham has any political savvy, he’ll be on that issue again.

An interesting footnote: Asked about favorite governors, Edwards talked with emotion about the gravely ill Kathleen Blanco, one of his mentors. Abraham quickly mentioned Mike Foster, another advocate for pro-business lawsuit restrictions.

But he also mentioned the late John McKeithen, who famously drawled, “Won’t you he’p me?” and was a populist two-term governor from north Louisiana.

Edwards quipped back for a laugh, “I’m not old enough to remember John McKeithen,” but if the old man could come back, he’d be more likely to favor Edwards than Abraham.

A small-government guy who was heavily subsidized for his education in vet and medical schools, in the military and in his wealthy medical practice? One can imagine McKeithen with a twinkle in his eye suggesting that sounds like small government for thee, and not for me.

Email Lanny Keller at lkeller@theadvocate.com.