U.S. Sen. David Vitter was the major target at a televised debate Oct. 1 featuring all four of the leading gubernatorial candidates: Vitter, Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle, state Rep. John Bel Edwards and Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne. Also on the dais were two lesser-known candidates: Democrat Cary Deaton of Metairie and the Rev. Jeremy Odom of Natchitoches (no party).
The hour-long event, held at WDSU-TV and moderated by news anchor Scott Walker, was heavily focused on social issues — the first 8 minutes were spent on Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who refused to issue same-sex marriage licenses. The next block of time was spent on marijuana (medical and recreational), while the national Planned Parenthood controversy took up still more time. The state's budget crisis, including the shortfall in higher education funding, was barely touched upon, and the question of coastal restoration never came up.
The debate's focus on social issues — with little time devoted to the state's fiscal crisis — drew scathing criticism on Twitter. "WDSU debate spends 1 minute on higher education, but 10 minutes on Kim Davis ... Oh, 0 minutes on budget," tweeted Joshua Stockley, a political science professor at the University of Louisiana Monroe. Blogger and columnist Bob Mann, a Louisiana State University professor, called the debate "journalistic malpractice."
With Edwards the only Democrat among the top four (and he's a pro-life, pro-Second Amendment Democrat at that), the frontrunners' positions on most social issues differed only by degrees. All opposed recreational pot (with Vitter also drawing the line at medicinal use), while none supported same-sex marriage (though Edwards thought Davis should have made accommodations through another clerk).
The back-and-forth was testy, sometimes bordering on pugnacious. Angelle referred to Vitter as "Senator Pinocchio," and he drew murmurs in the crowd when he said Vitter was wrong about "fornication" as well as education. During a discussion about taxing marijuana, Dardenne sarcastically said that some might want to legalize "prostitution" as a means of raising revenue for the state.
Rumors about Vitter's "very serious sin" made the national press earlier that day when the Washington D.C.-based Talking Points Memo (TPM), a left-leaning website, reported that WDSU would air an anti-Vitter commercial during the debate — an ad featuring a baby in a diaper (a reference to unproven rumors relating to Vitter's prostitution scandal). But WDSU General Manager Joel Vilmenay told Gambit it would be a commercial-free debate and that TPM had never called the station to confirm its story. Trey Ourso, head of Gumbo PAC, the political action committee that made the ad, also told Gambit that TPM had its story wrong. By then, of course, curiosity ensured the ad already had been viewed extensively on YouTube without the expense of an ad buy.
For his part, Vitter finally played his Obama card against Edwards — a tack that presages what the runoff will be like if the two men, who have led all recent polls, finish atop the field in the Oct. 24 primary. Vitter pointedly noted that Edwards voted twice for President Barack Obama and was an Obama delegate to the 2012 Democratic National Convention. Edwards answered that, yes, he did vote for Obama twice — then added that he never voted for Vitter.