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Debates confirm governor's race revolves around Vitter

Whether he’s present at them, the Louisiana gubernatorial debates have been all about Sen. David Vitter and his campaign strategy, as witnessed in the two most recent this week.

For the first and last time presumably this election cycle, statewide televised forums occurred on consecutive days, the first with Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, and state Rep. John Bel Edwards, and the second including them and Vitter. The events’ tones differed as a result.

Two things distinguished the first: the bland, technocratic presentation that lacked almost any ideological referents and almost as much discussion and referents made about Vitter by the other three. Knowing nothing else about the candidates or contest, one might have thought the Republicans Angelle and Dardenne and Democrat Edwards all were moderates of the same party as they differed by small degrees in their issues preferences as expressed there and almost went out of their way to avoid drawing distinctions on their core beliefs.

In the cases of Dardenne and Edwards, that was purely intentional. Edwards continues to follow the Democrat playbook as well as anybody can, serving up plenty of God and guns to distract Louisiana’s right of center electorate into ignoring his tax-and-spend redistributionist agenda (and with a little factual distortion thrown for good measure). He knows he loses if the race is made ideological, which also explains why he tries to make this a contest of personalities and tying his opposition to Gov. Bobby Jindal, as some portion of the electorate associates Jindal with lack of leadership on Louisiana issues as a result of the governor’s pursuit of the presidency.

Dardenne seeks to downplay ideology as well, in that he can present himself as a conservative generally yet not rigidly so, implicitly appealing to non-conservatives who don’t wish to have a stringent version in the state’s highest office. If the contest became more ideological, his chances also would suffer as a majority of the electorate would gravitate towards conservative candidates of greater fervor; otherwise, he can hope enough non-conservatives who don’t think the liberal-wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing Edwards can win will unite with enough conservatives to get him a win.

By contrast, Angelle displays a kind of schizophrenia concerning ideology. In discrete campaign communications he plays up a general conservatism, and even in debates he will bring that up in broad strokes, in order to make who many in the public consider a blank slate into one that conveys conservatism.  But during debates on specific issues, he only occasionally has made explicit ideological references and contrasts with his opponents. He and Dardenne both share a reason from abjuring from these: they want to face Edwards in the runoff where if then they turn up the ideological comparisons, they win.

Here, Angelle’s strategy to get there with Edwards differs from that of Dardenne’s desire to position himself as the acceptable choice capable of victory, although their tactics merge. Angelle wishes to push Vitter decisively out of the established “solid” conservative space, on the basis that he is a nicer person not infected with Beltway politics, even as Dardenne wants to do the same at the margins in order to peel off enough conservatives to join his more moderate coalition.

In order to do this, they must attack Vitter. Naturally enough, Vitter hits back, but unlike theirs his attacks don’t focus on the personal traits of his Republican opponents, but rather on specific issue preferences and actions of theirs that illustrate asserted failures of leadership, impute dysfunction in Louisiana governance, and claim lack of conservative credentials on their part.

This came through in the vibe of the second debate, where Vitter deliberately sought to frame answers more ideologically than his opposition with just a few jabs at them, while Angelle and Dardenne threw more jabs at Vitter and did not often turn attention towards broad ideological appeals. For his part Edwards, who gains nothing by veering from his Trojan Horse strategy, stayed that course, letting his liberalism out only when the questions left him no choice.

Yet even he has joined with Dardenne and Angelle in tossing out from time to time disparaging remarks about Vitter. As polls continue to show Vitter and Edwards in the inevitable runoff, the frequency of these personal attacks have increased – by Dardenne and Angelle from a sense of desperation that unless they can tear down Vitter enough they will miss the runoff and by Edwards in a sense of certainty that he will face Vitter in the runoff and the time is right to do the same.

However, this strategy likely has more chance to fail than succeed. Vitter’s long history in the state makes it difficult to peel off committed supporters who have plenty of confirmation of his conservative credentials and are so pleased at that record that they discount his personal foibles. Indeed, with especially the Republicans sniping at Vitter when he’s not in the room and in commercials, this plays exactly into Vitter’s hands as far as his theme of “broken Baton Rouge” goes, where it seems politicians would rather complain about one individual not around to defend himself. The semi-interested voter begins to wonder if Vitter’s opponents are so obsessed with him that maybe this is because Vitter is an outsider threatening to break up comfortable arrangements in state government that have held the state back – validating the image Vitter has cultivated for a quarter of a century to a state public suspicious of its government and politicians.

What these recent pair and all the statewide televised debates have shown is the contest still revolves around Vitter and not so much ideology and issues unless he forces the pace. That gives him a power no other candidate has – since the others spend so much effort trying to define him rather than themselves and thus attention keeps coming back to him, he has the ability to redirect it to control the election’s narrative to his benefit. Redirect it to ideology, and he has the advantage over all others. Redirect it often enough and he appears the most statesman and they seem small by comparison. So far, he appears sufficiently agile at this to win.

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