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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.

For the first time this election year, Gov. John Bel Edwards and one of his opponents sat down Friday to talk to each other.

Maybe a better way to characterize the forum, sponsored by the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, was that it allowed Edwards and U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, R-Alto, to talk past one another.

Abraham is one of two Republicans seeking to unseat the Democratic governor this fall; the other, businessman Eddie Rispone, declined the invitation, citing prior commitments. Rispone had made news in recent days by announcing that he’d dip into his personal fortune to match Edwards’ daunting $10 million-plus war chest, yet Abraham certainly seemed fine with an event that positioned him as the most visible challenger.

“Well, governor, it looks like it’s just you and me,” Abraham said.

Gov. Edwards, GOP challenger Abraham debate health care, taxes, more at policy-focused forum

Not that the conversation would have gone so differently had it been two-on-one instead of one-on-one. The dynamic on display is the same one we’re likely to see from now until the October primary. Consider it the live-action version of that old poll question about whether people think the state’s heading in the right direction or is off on the wrong track (It just so happens that LSU researchers recently posed that question to Louisiana voters. Forty-seven percent said right track, just short of a majority but more than expressed a negative opinion, and significantly higher than a year earlier).

Edwards has a story to tell, and it’s that he’s steadied the state’s fiscal ship, worked in a bipartisan manner with the Republican-majority Legislature and set Louisiana on a path toward improvement.

“We have a lot of momentum. We’re doing a lot of things right,” he said.

Those hoping to see him become a one-term governor have their own variation on the narrative. It’s that the state is struggling, with business stymied and government out of control. While Edwards regularly touts economic development announcements, Abraham contended that “we have people and businesses hemorrhaging out of this state.”

Consider their different takes on Medicaid expansion.

Abraham, a doctor who has voted in Congress to end the Affordable Care Act that created the program, said he wouldn’t abandon it. But if Louisiana doesn’t get it under control, he insisted, “it will bankrupt the state.”

Edwards painted the program as not just a moral good but an economic plus that has created jobs, saved money by funneling more people into a program that’s at least 90 percent covered by the federal government, and protected rural hospitals from closure.

On the state’s tax structure, Abraham made the familiar argument that it’s too convoluted, with high rates and rampant exemptions.

Edwards noted that he agrees. He explained that he had offered to support reform recommendations devised by a legislatively created advisory panel, but that lawmakers refused to adopt them.

Abraham’s response to that: “You heard the governor’s response. Doom, gloom and blame.”

And so it went. Edwards cited statistics showing conditions are improving. Abraham noted that Louisiana remains on the bottom of many lists. Abraham cited the state’s high on-paper tax rates. Edwards pointed to statistics showing the actual tax burden is among the nation’s lowest.

On a more sweeping level, Abraham laid out an overall philosophy that will sound familiar to any conservative — no surprise, given that his goal is to remind Louisianans that they usually vote for Republicans like him.

Edwards, Abraham claimed, “doesn’t have a government program that he doesn’t think can be bigger. I’m a small government guy.”

Edwards’ aim here is to position himself not on the left but squarely in the common sense, pragmatic middle. As for his thesis statement, he chose one that echoed none other than Ronald Reagan.

“Are you better off than you were four years ago?” the governor asked.


Follow Stephanie Grace on Twitter, @stephgracela.