Make no mistake, the Alliance endorsement is valuable. Many voters consider it the political equivalent of a Good Housekeeping seal of approval. But this time, it was a foregone conclusion. That's not a knock on the group; it's merely a reflection of its longstanding ties to the Republican congressman from Metairie.
Listening to the debate that preceded the Alliance's lopsided endorsement vote, one would be hard-pressed to find vast philosophical differences between Vitter and his two leading Democratic challengers. Congressman Chris John of Crowley is conservative enough to be welcome at a GOP barbecue. State Treasurer John Kennedy of Baton Rouge struck a moderate to slightly left-of-center pose in his opening and closing remarks, but both Democrats marched lock-step in answering most questions. Neither strayed very far from Vitter as well.
State Rep. Arthur Morrell of New Orleans, the only African American in the contest, presented a more mainstream Democratic platform. That is to say, well to the left of most voters in Louisiana. Morrell is articulate, consistent and focused -- but woefully underfinanced. If he can raise more money, he'll be a spoiler to one of the other Democrats.
One of the few areas in which the candidates differed was on the future of the Industrial Canal lock and widening project in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans. Vitter and John expressed support for the project, based on maritime and economic development needs. Kennedy and Morrell said the controversial project should not be "a sure thing." Vitter and John's support for the lock project is somewhat at odds with all the candidates' opposition to the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet (MRGO or "Mister Go"). That controversial waterway split St. Bernard Parish in two, devastated beautiful freshwater marshes in lower St. Bernard, continues to mainline salt water into Lake Pontchartrain all the way to St. Charles and St. John parishes (affecting even the Labranche wetlands west of Kenner), and accelerates coastal erosion throughout the Lake Pontchartrain Basin, which in turn increases flooding on the Northshore. It is truly an environmental disaster.
All the candidates favor closing the MRGO. If that's true, then why do two of them still want to widen the Industrial Canal, which will only encourage shipping interests to continue using (and justifying) the MRGO? No doubt that question will come up in future debates.
Other issues that divide the candidates include:
• School vouchers. All the Democrats oppose vouchers; Vitter supports them.
• Fast-tracking judicial appointments. Vitter supports it, as do most Republicans these days. (We'll see how they like it if John Kerry wins in November.) The Democrats support the rule of Senatorial Privilege.
• President Bush's deficit. Vitter dances around his president's responsibility for the current record deficits, saying we have a spending problem associated with both parties. Actually, despite what anyone thinks of Bill Clinton, he showed fiscal restraint and produced not only balanced budgets, but also a massive surplus. Nonetheless, John and Kennedy shied away from criticizing Bush on this one.
Morrell said not to expect anyone currently in Congress to fix a problem they helped create. He reminds me of that old Bob Dylan line: "When you ain't got nuthin', you got nuthin' to lose." He'll provide the spice of this campaign, if nothing else.
Overall, Vitter and Kennedy did the best at articulating their messages. Vitter stresses his accessibility, his independence and his effectiveness. Kennedy is running as an outsider -- "If you want change, send someone to Washington who's not from Washington."
John should be emphasizing that he's the candidate most like retiring U.S. Sen. John Breaux, a moderate who is extremely popular and who is supporting John behind the scenes. Instead, John mentioned Breaux only once. As the campaign heats up, we should see more differences between the candidates, particularly the Democrats. The Alliance endorsement may have been predictable, but the campaign to come should be full of surprises.