Analysis: Vitter's Absence At TV Debates Rankles Competitors
BATON ROUGE (AP) — In the final sprint to the Oct. 24 election, Republican candidate for governor David Vitter is all over the airwaves in campaign ads, but less seen in some of the typical campaign stops, particularly TV debates.
His absenteeism has drawn the ire of his three major rivals, Republican Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle, Republican Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne and Democratic state Rep. John Bel Edwards.
They accuse Vitter, a U.S. senator, of refusing to attend unscripted events, engage in real policy debates or interact directly with voters. They say he doesn't want to participate in question-and-answer sessions where he can't see the questions in advance or control the forum style.
Vitter replies that he's got important work to do in Washington and can't be home all the time to campaign.
Maybe it's a mix of both — and maybe it won't matter at all.
With each election cycle, the time of retail politicking, large rallies and public debating in Louisiana's statewide races appears to be disappearing, replaced with slick campaign mailers, TV advertising and an ability to steer clear of the general electorate. The days of fiery-speechmaking and outsized personalities that Louisiana voters once favored appear to be waning.
Republican Bill Cassidy won last year's U.S. Senate race, defeating Democratic incumbent Mary Landrieu, in a campaign masterminded by Vitter, with few unscripted settings, limited public events and far fewer debates than Landrieu wanted. A narrowly tailored partisan approach, backed by millions of dollars in advertising, proved to work.
Vitter's hoping that approach can work again in the governor's race, and in many ways he's got less work to do than his competitors. He's nearly universally known in Louisiana, so he doesn't need to introduce himself to voters like the other candidates. His campaign fundraising dwarfs his competitors. And he remains one of the race's front-runners.
However, Vitter's also got high unfavorable numbers in polls and the baggage of an eight-year-old prostitution scandal, which threaten his ability to make the Nov. 21 runoff, so he needs to hang onto his core base of support.
Unscripted, wide-open TV debates are a risk that a candidate can be forced off-message or pushed to answer uncomfortable questions.
They also can provide some of the most useful information to voters who are trying to sift through campaign rhetoric and choose a favored candidate as they select a new governor to grapple with the state's most difficult financial troubles in a generation.
Dardenne said at one event that Vitter skipped that the senator doesn't want to "talk to the voters of Louisiana."
At the second TV debate that Vitter missed last week, Edwards took a dig at Vitter as he was asked to describe what he admired about his two opponents on the stage, Angelle and Dardenne.
"We have developed a pretty good relationship really over the years, but over this year particularly because we actually show up to forums and debates. And I appreciate that about them," Edwards said.
Vitter said his opponents "want to have it both ways," criticizing him for not attending the events, but then criticizing "any minor vote" he misses in Washington.
"I'm doing my job that I was elected to do. I'm not going to neglect that in any way," he said in an interview.
Of three TV debates aired so far, Vitter has participated in one. He's agreed to another at Louisiana Tech University in north Louisiana on Thursday, but it appears likely he'll miss three others over the next two weeks.
Vitter said he's attended three dozen forums since announcing his campaign, which he described as "unprecedented" for a Louisiana governor's race. Many of those events, however, are geared toward special-interest groups, aren't televised and aren't seen by regular voters. Many of the forums were done long before voters were paying attention to the campaigns.
Despite his opponents' criticism, Vitter's approach appears to be working with voters so far. Polls show he and Edwards leading the pack and on track for the runoff election.
– by AP Reporter Melinda Deslatte