Vitter was sitting prettier than any other potential candidate in the wide-open field. He had just come off forays into various corners of the state, where he was warmly received by Republicans and conservatives at every turn. He also had beaten the pants off Gov. Mike Foster in the flap over the Jena Indian casino. He was on a roll.
In fact, most agree Vitter had a lock on one of the two runoff spots. Although several other Republican names have surfaced, none has Vitter's knack for galvanizing crowds, garnering free publicity, spotting a political opening or seizing a political moment.
Someone recently compared him to the creature in the space flick Alien. In the film, the ship's science officer describes the rampaging creature as "the perfect organism." Nothing could kill it, and it would do anything to survive. Vitter is seen by some as the perfect political organism. He is very smart, very ambitious, and very focused. Every step he takes, every move he makes, brings him closer to whatever he sees as his goal. In the same way that the science officer admired the creature in Alien, even Vitter's enemies admire his ability to maneuver politically.
When Vitter pulled out of the governor's race because of family considerations, he showed a side of himself that most politicians don't often reveal: he's human. The stress of working in Washington, living on the Northshore and trying to jump-start a statewide campaign for governor has taken a toll. Public life always does.
His announcement that he and his wife Wendy have been in counseling caught most folks by surprise -- not because they sought help but because he decided to make it public. He told me shortly afterward that voters are always skeptical -- and rumor mills always ratchet up -- when political figures vaguely cite "family considerations" as the reason for a career-altering decision. He says he figured that if he simply gave everyone the rest of the story, that would be it.
For once, he figured wrong. Vitter's foes wasted no time circulating all sorts of sordid speculation, none of which is supported by any evidence whatsoever.
Although Vitter and I have never been pen pals, I hate to see anyone in public or private life subjected to malicious rumors. His foes should either put up or shut up. Otherwise, give the guy -- and his family -- a break.
Politically, the bigger story is who gains by Vitter's about-face. His decision creates a huge void on the right, and Republicans are scrambling to fill it:
State Senate President John Hainkel has always liked the idea of running for governor, and someone ("Not me," says Hainkel) put out "Draft Hainkel for Governor" bumper stickers last week. This could be Hainkel's last window of opportunity.
Sen. Ken Hollis of Metairie has been talking for several years about running, but he stood in Vitter's shadow until now. This is his chance to step into the spotlight.
State Rep. Hunt Downer of Houma is said to be Foster's favorite, and maybe even President George Bush's. Vitter's exit bolsters speculation that the Prez may endorse the former House speaker in the primary.
State Elections Commissioner Suzanne Haik-Terrell could pre-empt a lot of entries because she presently is the only potential candidate with a statewide base. But she's currently considering a race against U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu in November. Depending on whether -- and how -- she runs that race, Terrell could emerge as a GOP front-runner.
Among Democrats, state Treasurer John Kennedy and former Senate President Randy Ewing are potential party-switchers.
Without Vitter in the race, things are more wide-open than ever.