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Debate brightens Vitter's gubernatorial chances

Perhaps Republican Sen. David Vitter in retrospect will regret not trying harder to attend more televised debates earlier in the gubernatorial campaign from the way he mopped the floor with Democrat state Rep. John Bel Edwards in the first of two runoff debates for the office.

Each candidate brought a different agenda to the spectacle. Vitter, who needs to tap into the right-of-center Louisiana electorate’s natural tendencies, had to keep the affair focused on issues and ideology. He also had to look for chances to tie Edwards to general dissatisfaction over fiscal budgeting in the Legislature, with a special emphasis on exposing where the rhetoric of the leader of House Democrats clashed with his actual record as a proxy attack on his credibility. For his part, Edwards had to dodge revelation of issues preferences where his liberalism and comity with Pres. Barack Obama stood out, preferably by keeping the spotlight on alleged character comparisons. In addition, he could look to launch selective attacks on Vitter’s record in Washington and join him to Gov. Bobby Jindal, who many hold responsible for the state’s fiscal uncertainties with whom he and the Legislature cooperated in producing.

And both embarked on their charted courses, except Vitter ended up chugging along while Edwards hit numerous roadblocks. Granted, Vitter had the advantage in that the debate sponsors Louisiana Public Broadcasting and the interest group Council for a Better Louisiana designed it mainly to focus on issues, but the degree to which he successfully parried Edwards’ attacks while keeping Edwards on the defensive impressed.

For example, he routed Edwards most heavily on the infrastructure module. Each served up boilerplate about how monies derived from fuel taxes that go into the Transportation Trust Fund should not, and they would not under their guidance, go to current operations in government (to the State Police). Edwards did not indicate where a substitute for the retained money would come from, while Vitter said efficiencies from better priorities and programming would raise the amount (at its lowest in recent years) of money from the fund that actually went to roads construction from 11 cents.

That played into the narrative that Vitter built slowly throughout the affair, that Edwards promised much and seemed quite willing to raise taxes to do so (as in the latest legislative session, almost $600 million worth), but offered nothing in the way of making government work better or in its shrinking. But then he gigged Edwards on his voting more often than not for budgets ratifying the diversion, equating Edwards with the often-vilified Jindal and in the process neutering the weak Edwards line that Vitter would govern like Jindal (the two Republicans have a history of often not seeing eye to eye on such matters).

Piling on, Vitter also noted that Edwards not once had authored any bill to undertake the very strategy the Democrat claimed would address this issue, unlocking statutory dedications. This corroborated the impression that Edwards was all hat and no cattle, talking a great game but one at odds with his actual beliefs and performance. In other words, Edwards’ rhetoric and record simply didn’t match.

Vitter scored several more times in this regard. However, his strategy attempted more than to demonstrate this divergence, in that it also constituted an indirect questioning of Edwards’ character. This came through most obviously near the end, where they were asked whether their campaigns employed operatives to tail the other. Vitter said no, but he knew groups supporting him were so he concluded he was getting a form of assistance from them.

But Edwards, despite the fact allies of his had tracked the Vitter campaign throughout, kept dodging the question. He said his campaign (like Vitter’s) did not employ such personnel, but would not admit that groups working on his behalf did and tried to use that material for the Edwards campaign’s advantage. Instead, he prattled on about how he personally never had seen any of that work product, as if it denied the fact. This, Vitter countered, was an example of Edwards’ failing to live up to the U.S. military’s honor code but adhering to a “lawyer’s code” where hair-splitting and deflection tries to evade responsibility. In the end, the best Edwards could do in response came with a very flippant but flat remark about how he deals “low blows” to Vitter “because that’s where you live.”

On issues, Vitter scored and scored again (often citing the website LA Governor Facts as an easy data reference book to back up his points), in that he painted Edwards in the fashion he desired while Edwards could not do the same regarding Vitter. About the best the Democrat managed concerned a question that brought in Medicare, where Vitter had supported measures that would prevent the inefficient system that cannot pay for itself from going bankrupt that would make it more like Louisiana’s Bayou Health plan for Medicaid, with premium support for insurance purchase through the market only for seniors entering the program in the next few years and beyond, that Edwards characterized, largely unchallenged (because of the complexity of the issues), as dismantling Medicare. Of course, that has little to do with state government and even here Vitter managed a riposte that he tried to save the raid of $750 billion from Medicare by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act that Edwards lauds.

Vitter missed opportunities here and there, such as not calling out Edwards on denying he had at the very least a business relationship, if not friendship, with a political activist involved in political grandstanding against Vitter that is verified by corporate records, but otherwise lived up to his reputation as skilled in these events. Generally, he found himself on the offensive the entire hour countered effectively Edwards’ jabs, while Edwards consistently had trouble staying on the offensive and making effective counters.

A case in point came with discussion about disaster aid, where Edwards said Vitter ineffectively lobbied, if not against, getting loan forgiveness from the federal government, and said local parish officials told him that. In fact, as he pointed out, Vitter had worked with a number of parishes on (with other delegation members) finally obtaining this relief from the reluctant Obama Administration. That left Edwards doing his best imitation of his co-partisan Obama when caught on the wrong side of the facts, shaking his head throughout Vitter’s recitation and then repeating how parish officials he talked to said otherwise in classic “he said/she said” fashion.

So, the good news for Vitter was to a far greater magnitude than did Edwards he accomplished his goals at the debate. But the bad news is not a whole lot of people typically watch these – probably significantly more than any single one in the general election phase, as typically Louisianans become more attentive in the runoff phase of governors’ races, but still just a fraction of the voting population. Somewhat more of it will consume media accounts of the clash, but this generally superficial coverage will be shaped however the media wants through their selectivity of what they report – and the mainstream media unfriendly to Vitter sympathizes with Edwards.

Still, Vitter did what he needed to do to resist allowing a contest that has gone from his being a firm favorite to slipping from his grasp. Other dynamics that will have a greater impact on the outcome neither he nor Edwards can as easily control.

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