With less than two weeks to go in the governor's race, Sen. David Vitter made several tactical moves he hoped would close the gap between himself and Democratic opponent John Bel Edwards. Despite poll numbers that gave Edwards a double-digit lead with less than 10 days remaining, most observers see the race tightening.
Late last week, the Cook Political Report moved its prognosis of the race to "Lean Democrat." I still rate it a toss-up. Election Day is this Saturday, Nov. 21.
After doubling down on his all-Obama, all the time, TV attack ads in the second week of the four-week runoff, Vitter opened Week 3 with a softer ad that had him admitting he failed his family 15 years ago — but found redemption. It was a deft yet dramatic counterpoint to Edwards' hard-hitting "prostitutes over patriots" ad, and it appeared to be working by week's end.
The big question for Vitter now is whether his last-ditch, all-or-nothing counteroffensive — his political Battle of the Bulge — will turn the election in his favor or seal his fate. We'll know Saturday night.
After beginning with Vitter's "redemption" spot last Monday (Nov. 9), the week quickly took a contentious turn. Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand called a news conference last Tuesday to unload on Vitter just hours before the first statewide TV debate between the two combatants. The sheriff's office has been investigating "Spygate" since a ham-handed private investigator hired by Team Vitter was caught surreptitiously videotaping and recording a conversation between Normand and some of his pals at Royal Blend Coffee & Tea in Old Metairie.
In his nearly hour-long news conference, Normand blasted Vitter for spying on private citizens and non-candidates. He also accused Vitter's private investigators of trying to coax an unidentified woman into signing a prepared affidavit accusing blogger Jason Brad Berry of paying witnesses to lie about Vitter. Berry broke the story weeks ago about former prostitute Wendy Ellis accusing Vitter of impregnating her and then suggesting she get an abortion.
Normand said video and audio on the spy camera confiscated by his deputies showed attorney Wes Bearden, whose PI firm has been paid six figures by Team Vitter, pressing the woman to sign the affidavit in order to help Vitter's campaign keep the mainstream media from picking up Berry's story. Berry says he has never paid anyone for information.
Both Normand and Vitter have referred elements of the dispute to the feds. Vitter has been circumspect about the "evidence" he claims to have uncovered. Normand's deputies met with the FBI last Thursday, Nov. 12 — one day after the sheriff began appearing in an anti-Vitter television ad.
Meanwhile, the first televised debate between Vitter and Edwards began as a structured give-and-take on important issues but devolved into a virtual shouting match. Vitter accused Edwards, who touts his West Point credentials, of not living by the Honor Code but rather "by the lawyer's code" for his "prostitutes over patriots" ad. Edwards shot back, "If it's a low blow, it's only because that's where you live, Senator. It hits you where you live." Their final televised debate is Monday, Nov. 16.
Vitter has never faced an opponent like Edwards — someone who literally is battle-tested and unafraid of the fiercely combative senator. After stumbling out of the blocks in the first two weeks of the runoff, Vitter found his footing last week. Although he continued to trail in the polls, he picked up a key endorsement from the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI), one of the state's most powerful lobbies. He also continued to tie Edwards to President Barack Obama in the debate and in his TV ads.
In another warm-and-fuzzy ad, Vitter, wearing camo, stood next to Duck Dynasty TV personality Willie Robertson and received the faux-reality show star's endorsement. "I know he's made some mistakes, but who hasn't?" Robertson said.
Vitter's one-two punch — pounding Edwards with Obama while softly seeking forgiveness for himself — is aimed directly at white voters. Given that Edwards will get more than 90 percent of Louisiana's sizeable black vote, Vitter needs more than 68 percent of the white vote to seal a win. Late polls showed him getting much less than that, and even if Vitter gets virtually all of the "undecided" white vote, Edwards still would lead.
Unless Vitter's counteroffensive works.
This week, look for Vitter to tag Edwards for supporting higher taxes, for allying himself with anti-business trial lawyers and unions, and of course for being "another Obama liberal Democrat."
Edwards is likely to unleash his most potent weapon: tying Vitter to Gov. Bobby Jindal. Although Jindal and Vitter can't stand one another, many voters see Vitter as very much like the wildly unpopular governor in terms of style and policy.
Pounding is part of the political game, but it's a lot easier to take if you're the hammer and not the nail. After 24 years of being the hammer, Vitter finally knows what it feels like to be the nail. If his Battle of the Bulge strategy works, he'll replace Bill Clinton as The Comeback Kid.