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US Rep. Charles Boustany, R-Lafayette, left, speaks with Congressman Jeff Fortenberry, of Nebraska, as they tour Saturday flood damage in Baton Rouge's North Sherwood Forest neighborhood.

As a long-unformed U.S. Senate contest enters the homestretch, it’s safe to say that we’ve wandered a very, very long way from where U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany, one of 24 candidates, hoped the conversation would be.

When you’re still trying to make a first impression on voters outside your congressional district, let’s just say that it’s not good thing when your name comes up in a new book about the suspicious deaths of eight prostitutes, released by a major publisher less than two months before Election Day.

It’s particularly not a good thing when that book is sensationally titled “Murder in the Bayou,” and it contains a chapter describing how a now-former aide ran the quaintly named hotel, the Boudreaux Inn in Jefferson Davis Parish, where the prostitution ring was centered. And when, by the way, author Ethan Brown quotes unnamed sources alleging that you were a “well-regarded client” of several prostitutes who were later killed, even as he acknowledges that there’s no reason to connect you to any of their deaths.

And it’s definitely not a good thing when the whole drama takes place in the midst of a campaign to replace someone whose reputation was permanently marred by his own prostitution scandal.

So let’s make one thing clear: Charles Boustany is not David Vitter.

One key difference is that, unlike the retiring senator he’s hoping to replace, Boustany didn’t build his career as a zero-tolerance scold. Since well before his phone number was discovered in the records of a Washington, D.C. call-girl ring in 2007, Vitter had nurtured a holier-than-thou reputation, particularly on ethics and so-called family values. His 1998 op-ed piece calling then-President Bill Clinton “morally unfit” to govern, dredged up and widely circulated nine years later, led to inevitable and entirely appropriate charges of hypocrisy.

A more important distinction is that, with Vitter, we knew that at least some of the accusations were true.

Ever since his own scandal broke and right through his failed run for governor last year, Vitter has pushed back on specific reports involving New Orleans-based prostitutes. But from the day the news came out, it was undeniably clear that he’d strayed. And indeed, Vitter refused to answer questions about his involvement with the DC operation, confessed only to having committed a serious sin and, legalities aside, brushed off the very questions he’d raised about Clinton and declared it a private matter. But while he was never criminally charged (even though his name did appear on a witness list), Vitter never came out and denied that he had been a client. He couldn’t, after having been caught red-handed.

Unlike Vitter, Boustany can deny the allegations, which he adamantly does, and which other news outlets, including The Advocate, have not been able to independently confirm. In a recent conference call with reporters, he deemed the book’s contents “despicable lies” and “complete tabloid nonsense,” and sought to shift the spotlight to one of his main rivals, state treasurer and fellow Republican John Kennedy, by accusing Kennedy of spreading the allegations.

Indeed, Kennedy’s campaign manager admitted to sending around a news report about the book’s contents, and Kennedy himself issued an artfully — and widely quoted — statement that denied spreading details even as it managed to do just that.

“I want to be very clear that my campaign played absolutely no role in creating this story alleging Congressman Boustany’s sexual relationships with prostitutes that were later murdered, his staff’s alleged involvement in running the bar and hotel where this illicit behavior took place, or publishing the book 'Murder in the Bayou' written by Ethan Brown and published by Simon and Schuster,” the statement said.

Kennedy’s comment, and the hint of gloating behind it, may well alienate some voters even as it reinforces his opponent’s troubles, but the fact is Kennedy is not Boustany’s main concern here.

He’s stuck with the reality that voters may well never learn the underlying truth, and that the suspicion itself could be enough to make voters feel uncomfortable and opt for one of the other many candidates on the November primary ballot. Others may simply ignore the allegations, and it’s even possible that some will actually feel for the guy, since he has no real way to disprove them.

But under any of those scenarios, there really isn’t much more Boustany can say, other than to keep on trying to convince them that he’d do a good job in the Senate — and that he deserves the benefit of the doubt.


Follow Stephanie Grace on Twitter, @stephgracela.