BATON ROUGE — The final TV debate among candidates for Louisiana governor went on Wednesday without Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter, though his GOP rivals made sure to point out Vitter’s absence.
Republican Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle, Republican Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne and Democratic state Rep. John Bel Edwards fielded questions before an audience of LSU students three days before the Saturday election.
They talked about their support for higher education — and for stopping college cuts. Angelle and Dardenne also noted Vitter was missing.
“You have three candidates that showed up tonight to debate and a fourth one who still can’t make it,” Angelle said, adding that Vitter also has a high absentee rate from Senate votes. Then, he looked in the camera and added: “Keep that in mind, you undecided voters.”
Debate organizers said Vitter’s campaign cited scheduling conflicts in Washington, and his campaign put out information highlighting Vitter’s participation in a Senate committee hearing on the economic impacts of EPA regulations earlier in the day.
It’s the seventh TV debate in the race ahead of Saturday’s election. Vitter attended two.
Vitter’s opponents have accused him of skipping debates to avoid questions about his 2007 prostitution scandal. Eight years ago, Vitter apologized for a “serious sin” after phone records linked him to Washington’s “D.C. Madam.”
Dardenne said voters ought to select one of the three men who participated in Wednesday’s debate, candidates he said “had the courage to come face the public and talk about issues of the state, not run away from the past.”
Both Angelle and Dardenne are trying to peel votes away from Vitter, who has been running second in polls behind Edwards. In Louisiana’s open primary, the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, will head to a November runoff if no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote Saturday.
While Vitter has taken a hit in recent polls, Angelle and Dardenne so far have been splitting the anti-Vitter vote and struggling to get ahead of him.
Edwards also has criticized Vitter for skipping debates. But on Wednesday, Edwards saved most of his attacks for term-limited Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, who Edwards blamed for cratering the state’s finances and causing long-term problems that will take years to repair.
“Louisiana has not been led well by a Republican governor,” Edwards said. “I don’t think hardly anybody would dispute that.”
The three men repeated their plans to do a wholesale review of the state’s multibillion-dollar tax breaks and scale some back to help balance the budget. They said they would end raids on state gas tax money and spend the dollars only on road and bridge work and infrastructure projects.
Asked about recent shootings, including one in which a gunman opened fire in a Lafayette movie theater, all three candidates said they didn’t think the state needed more gun restrictions but rather more focus on mental health treatment.
Edwards said Louisiana needed to strengthen background checks to make sure people who prove to be a danger to themselves or others cannot buy a gun, and he said more money needed to be spent on mental health treatment facilities.
The state needs to develop a mechanism for law enforcement to identify people with mental health problems when they are arrested, Dardenne said, and to offer more services to those in need of treatment.
Angelle said he would require an assessment within 180 days of taking office about what mental health services are available from the state, parish governments and charities, to determine shortcomings. He also noted his teen-aged daughter had seen a movie at the Lafayette theater only hours before a man shot and killed two people and wounded nine others before fatally shooting himself there.
“By the grace of God, we did not have that consequence for our family,” Angelle said.