Saturday, July 10, 2010

Sticking to His Script

Posted By on Sat, Jul 10, 2010 at 3:43 PM

[This is an updated version of my Gambit column that will appear in the July 13 issue. It is updated because former Supreme Court Justice Chet Traylor qualified against David Vitter after the dead-tree edition of Gambit went to print.]

David Vitter is sticking with what works. When Louisiana’s embattled U.S. senator qualified for re-election on July 7, he dodged questions about his latest self-inflicted scandal and instead offered reporters a familiar refrain: that his chief Democratic opponent, Congressman Charlie Melancon, is too supportive of President Barack Obama.

Vitter’s tack showed that he hasn’t lost his touch for sidestepping scandals. No matter what the issue, no matter how embarrassing the question, Vitter sticks to his talking points. So far, that approach has served him well. He consistently led Melancon in pre-qualifying polls.

But now the race is on, and Vitter won’t be able to hide without putting his early lead at risk. In fact, he drew a respected Republican opponent in the final moments of qualifying when retired Louisiana Supreme Court Justice Chet Traylor of Monroe entered the GOP primary against Vitter. Traylor’s north Louisiana base, which is home to many Christian conservatives, normally would be Vitter territory, but voters there who are not quite comfortable with the senator’s “serious sin” — and his failure to forthrightly address his character issues — now have an alternative. It remains to be seen how aggressively Traylor will campaign, and whether he will out Vitter as a hypocrite and a coward.

National analysts have already declared this race a likely win for the GOP. They may wind up being right, but hotly contested statewide races in Louisiana tend to be close, no matter what the early polls show.

One advantage for Vitter that national Democrats didn’t count on was Melancon’s failure (so far) to catch on as a candidate. Vitter is not the warmest guy on the planet, but, as Sam Goldwyn famously advised years ago, he has learned how to fake sincerity. Although Melancon likewise doesn’t exactly light up the room, he has tried to tag Vitter for his role in the D.C. Madam Affair and his retention of an aide with a record of domestic violence. Melancon will have to intensify those attacks if he hopes to gain traction.

In the D.C. Madam case, Vitter’s cell number turned up several times in Deborah Jeane Palfrey’s phone records, and he has either lied or failed to come clean about his involvement with prostitutes in New Orleans and Washington. More recently, ABC News reported several weeks ago that Vitter in 2008 retained an aide who had been arrested numerous times — including once for holding a female friend at knifepoint for more than an hour, cutting her badly enough to require stitches, and threatening to kill her. The aide, Brent Furer, resigned last month after news of his arrests became public.

ABC and others claim that Vitter not only kept Furer on staff, but also placed him in charge of women’s issues for the senator. Vitter denied the latter claim after ducking reporters for almost two weeks. After the denial, Beth Meeks, executive director of the Louisiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said that she had visited Vitter’s office shortly before Furer resigned and that Furer was sent out to meet with her to discuss the senator’s views on domestic violence legislation. A number of Washington information services also listed Furer as Vitter’s point man on women’s issues. Score one for Melancon.

Vitter’s strategy of dodging the issue and hiding from reporters will be difficult to maintain on the campaign trail, but he’s unlikely to change course unless Melancon and/or Traylor starts landing punches.

If Vitter has a weak flank, it is among women voters. His well-documented history of whore mongering may be easy for hard-core conservatives and other Obama haters to overlook, but many women voters who bought Vitter’s wholesome family man act six years ago may not forgive his “serious sin” so easily this time around. Nor are they likely to let him brush off the fact that he kept Furer on his payroll after the aide’s domestic violence record. Both scandals will come up, again and again, in debates. Vitter owes women an explanation on both counts.

It will be interesting to see how many debates Vitter attends — and how he handles blunt questions about his scandals. For now, he’s sticking to his script of running from the press while running against Obama — and hoping nobody’s paying too much attention to his own record of hypocrisy and cowardice.

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