The Monday debate featured a series of heated exchanges between Edwards and Vitter over his scandal. A defensive Vitter at one point yelled in exasperation, “It was 15 years ago!” The live audience added to the high-stakes drama. Both campaigns packed the high school auditorium with supporters. Vitter fans yelled, “Move on,” and “We’re over it,” every time the scandal came up—which was early and often.
“That is the most important experience of my life, earning that redemption,” Vitter said, explaining why he finally chose to speak to his past. Vitter’s choice to meet the press now—at the 11th hour—likely reflects an awareness of just how deeply damaged he has been by a resurgent debate over his past in the gubernatorial race. In the final weeks of the race, he has aired ads apologizing for his past misconduct.
Vitter’s wife, Wendy, stood by his side for the post-debate press scrum and at every single campaign stop over the weekend—posing in pictures, standing next to her husband at podiums, and offering polite conversation to passersby. By her estimation, the two attended 10 events in two days—part of a rigorous schedule in hopes of a late upset. At campaign events, her presence shielded Vitter against any uncomfortable questions from critics. Wandering around the church cook-off on Sunday Wendy Vitter gently nudged reporters in the direction of strong Vitter supporters: “If you’re trying to talk to people, did you hear that? He said he’s voted for David every single time.”
On the trail, David Vitter projected a tone of subdued optimism. Both Vitter and his wife said they hoped voters would focus on the issues in the final days, not “that”—as they each referred to the senator’s past dalliances.
“I know he doesn’t accept it. He’s a hard campaigner. So he will fight to the very end to try to figure out how to change the conversation,” said former Democratic Gov. Kathleen Blanco, who is supporting Edwards.
Vitter’s friends and supporters said they were surprised that Edwards and allied outside groups have attacked him so directly and aggressively over his past personal scandal. “When the dark ad came out last week, it took everybody by surprise,” said Ascension Parish Sheriff Jeff Wiley, a Vitter supporter, referring to an Edwards ad accusing Vitter of prioritizing prostitutes over national security.
Asked why he’s trailing in the polls, Vitter blamed his woes on the unpopularity of GOP Gov. Bobby Jindal. “I think it’s two big factors. I think it’s Bobby Jindal. I think he has set the stage for this race that makes it more difficult for Republicans. And No. 2, I think it’s $8 million in attack ads against me, very vicious ads, all focused on me throughout the primary, and that clearly took a toll,” Vitter said.
Using Jindal as a scapegoat doesn’t sit well with Jindal loyalists, who don’t think the Republican brand at-large has been sullied—only that of Vitter. “Sixty percent of primary voters voted for Republicans,” said Brad Todd, a GOP pollster working for Jindal’s super PAC. Among Vitter’s two Republican opponents in that October 24 primary, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne is supporting Edwards and Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle is staying neutral. Angelle spent the weekend duck hunting.