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Reaction may signal Boustany going for broke

Rep. Charles Boustany’s campaign for the U.S. Senate slid closer to desperation mode in its reaction to reaction over sketchy claims about the candidate’s personal comportment.

It all began a week ago when advance copies of a book came out about past murders of prostitutes in Jefferson Davis Parish. The story has hung around for nearly three years but the author for the book added new material alleging that Boustany had received services from prostitutes. No credible sources have come forward to substantiate this claim.

Also it seems an aide for Boustany worked at a motel frequented by the prostitutes. The campaign denied prior knowledge of that about the aide and he left his post after the allegations surfaced.

Boustany quickly denied strenuously the charges. Under normal circumstances, with a campaign feeling good about its prospects to win, the story would have withered away – even after at least one other campaign, that of frontrunner and fellow Republican Treas. John Kennedy, sent a link to the article reporting the sensational claims with neutral commentary to at least one elected official.

That’s nothing unusual. Campaigns circulate material all of the time to the politically-connected that could boost their candidates or detract from others, ideally both. Boustany ran into this earlier this year when an Internet conference call of his accidentally got broadcast with some derogatory remarks about an opponent, which others pounced on. Further, Kennedy’s campaign did not make any public any material about the assertions.

At this point, on Monday Boustany’s wife sent out a communication to campaign supporters. That’s a good strategy to underscore the lack of credibility of those kinds of charges that reassures the flock. But, either out of intemperance or as a planned maneuver, her message declared his “opponents have resorted to lies about him." This accomplished two things, both negative for the campaign: it allowed for refueling an issue that seemed ready to go away and it projected weakness in a phase of the campaign that best avoids disseminating that impression.

The Kennedy campaign scooped up the gift and ran with it. Now that an accusation had come its way, its response could go public with a reply both neutral and able to extend the shelf life of the controversy: “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,” Kennedy himself wrote.

OK, maybe best to stop digging the hole here, but Boustany himself wouldn’t let it be. Yesterday he fired back by saying Kennedy intentionally wished to spread the story, walking back from his wife’s assertion that multiple candidates had done so. While he may have intended to try to shift the focus of the story onto presumably dirty pool on the part of Kennedy, it also ignited again the existence of the unsubstantiated charges.

Which begs the question of why the Boustany campaign headed in this counterproductive direction. It kept alive the story it says has distortions and made Boustany look whiny and weak. The only potential payoff would come by throwing mud on Kennedy, to strengthen Boustany’s position.

That’s telling. Up until now, with Kennedy towering over his rivals in polls, supposedly all other candidates’ negative strategies would focus on grabbing support at each others’ expenses: detaching a vote from another would make you relatively better off, and twice as good if able to pull that vote into your column, to join Kennedy in the runoff.

Yet in going after Kennedy directly in this manner, that costs Boustany’s campaign in another way other than making him look smaller. While it could shake out a vote for Kennedy collectible for Boustany, that doesn’t have the multiplicative effect of grabbing one from a rival for the runoff. For example, as Republican Kennedy draws almost as much support from Democrats as do the two major Democrats in the race, a turned-off Democrat voter could flip to one of that other pair and thereby harm Boustany’s chance to make the runoff. And at this point, Boustany can’t seriously think his reaction would cause such a reevaluation of Kennedy as to knock Kennedy out of the runoff.

But perhaps he feels he has no choice. Possibly Boustany’s campaign has concluded it cannot win against Kennedy in a runoff so it has to make it another way, by poaching Kennedy voters. If so, this extremely risky strategy reduces his chance of making the runoff even as it might elevate significantly his probability of winning a runoff without Kennedy in it.

That realization would explain the Boustany campaign’s actions of the past week. As Kennedy shows no sign of weakening, simply it may be time to go for broke.

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