BATON ROUGE — Democrat John Bel Edwards and Republican David Vitter did little to mask their distaste for each other Monday night in the final statewide TV debate of the governor’s race ahead of this weekend’s runoff election.
Edwards, a state representative, at one point described Vitter as lacking a “moral compass” and in another moment called his Republican rival a “hypocrite.”
Vitter, a U.S. senator, said Edwards can’t be trusted. At different times in the debate, Vitter tied Edwards to both President Barack Obama and term-limited Gov. Bobby Jindal, two men with high unfavorable ratings in Louisiana. The runoff is Saturday.
Before a raucous, often cat-calling studio audience at a Baton Rouge school, the two men bickered in response to questions.
On efforts to block the resettlement of Syrian refugees in Louisiana, Vitter said Edwards continued to change his stance on whether he wanted to prevent refugees from entering the state.
“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,” Vitter said.
Edwards said he supported Jindal’s decision to try to keep new Syrian refugees from being relocated, because of concerns of public safety after the Paris attacks.
Of Vitter’s claims of switched positions, Edwards said: “David Vitter’s desperate. He will lie. He will distort. That’s what he does. It’s who he is because he lacks a moral compass.”
Vitter accused Edwards of claiming he opposes abortion, but not voting in line with those beliefs. Edwards brought up Vitter’s prostitution scandal, while Vitter suggested Edwards held a fundraiser at “a very adult night club” in New Orleans.
Both candidates said they wouldn’t raise tax rates on businesses or individuals, despite the state’s deep financial shortfalls. They talked of very similar plans to make government more efficient, remove protections that keep some areas of the budget off-limits to cuts and scale back tax break programs that aren’t deemed to provide a good return on investment for the state.
Vitter said his Democratic rival was simply mimicking the approach Vitter has outlined since the start of his campaign.
“It’s another classic example of Johnny Bel come lately,” Vitter said.
He accused Edwards of voting to raise an array of taxes in the most recent legislative session. But the package of tax changes approved by Edwards and other state lawmakers was similar to the approach Vitter said he would take to help address the state’s financial woes, largely by reducing spending on state tax breaks.
“You make everything up, senator. Your numbers aren’t the same this week as they were last week,” Edwards said.
The race is tighter than was expected months ago, when Vitter was widely expected to coast to an easy victory. Now, Edwards leads the runoff campaign in fundraising and polling, hoping to become the first Democrat to win statewide election in Louisiana since 2008.
Vitter has been under fire for his 2007 prostitution scandal, his attack-heavy campaign style in the primary election and allegations his campaign hired someone to secretly record the Jefferson Parish sheriff and others. In recent weeks, Vitter has tried to pivot to policy distinctions, suggesting Edwards is more liberal than he claims.
Asked to answer claims in an Edwards ad that he missed a vote to honor soldiers because of a phone call from the prostitution service, Vitter dodged and instead said he has apologized to the people of Louisiana and committed to re-earn their trust. He said voters don’t ask about the issue when he talks to them.
“If that’s not good enough for you, I’m sorry,” he said.
Though Vitter suggested people should move on from the scandal, he then referenced it himself in his final closing pitch to voters at the debate, describing the forgiveness he received from his family as “the most powerful motivator of my life.”
Edwards has built a campaign on his West Point degree, his military resume and pledges of bipartisanship.
The debate, sponsored by WVLA-TV, was the second of the runoff.