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The Gloves Are Off 

Throughout Louisiana's race for United States Senate, it was assumed that Congressman David Vitter of Metairie, the only major Republican in the contest, would run first in the Nov. 2 primary. The only open questions were "By how much?" and "Who will be there with him?". Until now, the second question got most of the attention. That's changing.

Vitter has run a picture-perfect campaign, particularly in his television ads. His TV has been head and shoulders above that of his main Democratic rivals, Congressman Chris John of Crowley and state Treasurer John Kennedy of Zachary. So much so that what once was unthinkable -- an outright win for Vitter in the primary -- is now the main topic of speculation among pundits Š and the main worry of Democrats here and in Washington.

Has the Vitter campaign turned into a juggernaut?

Recent polls suggest that might be the case. Two polls released last week show John moving into second place ahead of Kennedy, who had led his fellow Democrat (but trailed Vitter by a wide margin) since late summer. More important, the same polls show Vitter with a solid majority of the decided vote. One has him close to 50 percent.

A 600-sample independent poll by Verne Kennedy (who is not related to the candidate), taken for private business clients across the state, shows Vitter at 47 percent, John at 20 percent, Kennedy at 14 percent and state Rep. Arthur Morrell at 3 percent. All three major Democrats combined get only 37 percent, compared to Vitter's 47 percent. The survey was taken Oct. 1-4.

Another 600-sample poll, this one taken for Vitter, shows him leading with 43 percent. John is second with 17 percent, Kennedy gets 14 percent and Morrell, 2 percent. Again, the Democrats' combined total is 10 percentage points lower than Vitter's 43 percent. That survey was taken Oct. 6-7.

Those polls are credible -- although I'm quick to note that polls do not predict what will happen on Election Day. Polls by definition are snapshots in time, a picture of what the electorate was thinking at a particular point in the campaign. At least four weeks of campaigning remained when those surveys were taken, and things are certain to occur in response to those numbers.

In addition, polls tend to exaggerate the strength of Republicans in statewide elections because they typically show the GOP candidate getting substantial African-American support, which rarely happens in the voting booth. For example, Vitter gets 13 percent in the Verne Kennedy poll, but even he in his heart of hearts does not expect to get that kind of black vote on Nov. 2 -- particularly against an African-American opponent (Morrell). Even so, taking Vitter's black vote away in the Kennedy poll knocks him down no more than 4 percentage points.

The Democratic Party can read the polls just like we can, which is why the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is spending $1.3 million to take Vitter down a few notches. The ads blast Vitter on the issues of prescription drugs and Social Security -- two issues, interestingly, that he has tried to claim as his own in his TV ads.

It will be interesting to see how voters respond to the attacks on Vitter. Come to think of it, it will be interesting to see how Vitter handles it. He is known to have a temper, but so far he has managed to stay squeaky clean. Then again, Vitter has never found himself in a white-knuckle media war like the one we're about to see.

In the meantime, John is coming under attack as well. Vitter is blasting him on radio for allegedly voting to water down welfare reform, and a national animal protection group is gutting him in newspaper and TV ads for his defense of cockfighting. The gloves are coming off all around.

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