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Refugee flap overtakes state issues in governor’s race

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Edwards and Vitter

BATON ROUGE — The Louisiana governor’s race has taken a surprising turn into foreign policy ahead of Saturday’s election, as TV political ads and campaign rhetoric shifted this week to the Paris terrorist attacks and the wisdom of allowing Syrian refugees into U.S. borders.

Republican candidate David Vitter sees the national discussion as an opportunity to gain ground in a runoff campaign where he’s fallen behind. It’s his latest effort to tie his Democratic rival John Bel Edwards to President Barack Obama in the deeply conservative state.

Vitter, a U.S. senator, is traveling around Louisiana to talk about Syrian refugees, running an ad on the topic and striking repeatedly at Edwards on the resettlement issue in emails to supporters and robo-calls to voters. Vitter backers sent out statements hitting Edwards, a state lawmaker, on the subject, describing a dangerous threat of more refugees coming to Louisiana.

“John Bel and Obama are not the right men to handle this Syrian refugee situation,” the Republican Party of Louisiana said in a statement Wednesday.

The candidates’ positions on the issue don’t offer striking contrasts.

Both Edwards and Vitter said they would act as governor to block Syrian refugees from settling in Louisiana. Term-limited Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal and sitting governors in other states have announced such moves, but immigration experts say federal law gives them no authority to block the immigrants.

The U.S. State Department says 14 refugees from Syria have been resettled in Louisiana this year.

Vitter has now sponsored legislation he says would block the influx of refugees. He has accused Edwards of flip-flopping on whether he would block immigrants or cooperate with President Barack Obama on the issue.

“He’s now had four different positions in 48 hours. I don’t know where he is, but I know we can’t trust where he’ll end up, because he has always consistently supported President Obama,” Vitter said of Edwards at a debate this week.

Edwards has accused Vitter of missing key hearings in the Senate that deal with the matter, a theme echoed in a new TV ad launched by the anti-Vitter Gumbo PAC. The Edwards campaign also points to Vitter’s comments two years ago that events in Syria “do not pose a direct threat to the United States or our allies.”

“It’s no surprise that David Vitter is distorting the facts and trying to use this tragedy to save his desperate campaign,” Edwards says in a TV spot responding to Vitter, saying the senator was “AWOL when he could have made a difference.”

Roiling the issue was Vitter’s claim this week, in an open letter to federal officials and on the floor of the U.S. Senate, that a Syrian refugee who settled “just this week” in Baton Rouge “has already gone missing” and was believed to be heading to the Washington area.

Col. Mike Edmonson, head of Louisiana State Police, said at a Tuesday news conference that to say a Syrian refugee was on the loose and missing would be “a mischaracterization,” according to WAFB-TV. Edmonson had joined officials of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Baton Rouge, which helps refugees resettle in the Baton Rouge area, to discuss a threat against refugees phoned into that agency.

The director of the agency, David Aguillard, said Wednesday the individual in question arrived in Baton Rouge in June, not this week, and that he had legally relocated to be near family.

“Just because a person moves out of our area doesn’t mean that they’re lost or missing or wandering the countryside,” Aguillard said.

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