[This is an updated version of my Gambit column that will appear in the July 13 issue. It is updated because former Supreme Court Justice Chet Traylor qualified against David Vitter after the dead-tree edition of Gambit went to print.]
David Vitter is sticking with what works. When Louisianas embattled U.S. senator qualified for re-election on July 7, he dodged questions about his latest self-inflicted scandal and instead offered reporters a familiar refrain: that his chief Democratic opponent, Congressman Charlie Melancon, is too supportive of President Barack Obama.
Vitters tack showed that he hasnt lost his touch for sidestepping scandals. No matter what the issue, no matter how embarrassing the question, Vitter sticks to his talking points. So far, that approach has served him well. He consistently led Melancon in pre-qualifying polls.
But now the race is on, and Vitter wont be able to hide without putting his early lead at risk. In fact, he drew a respected Republican opponent in the final moments of qualifying when retired Louisiana Supreme Court Justice Chet Traylor of Monroe entered the GOP primary against Vitter. Traylors north Louisiana base, which is home to many Christian conservatives, normally would be Vitter territory, but voters there who are not quite comfortable with the senators serious sin and his failure to forthrightly address his character issues now have an alternative. It remains to be seen how aggressively Traylor will campaign, and whether he will out Vitter as a hypocrite and a coward.
National analysts have already declared this race a likely win for the GOP. They may wind up being right, but hotly contested statewide races in Louisiana tend to be close, no matter what the early polls show.
One advantage for Vitter that national Democrats didnt count on was Melancons failure (so far) to catch on as a candidate. Vitter is not the warmest guy on the planet, but, as Sam Goldwyn famously advised years ago, he has learned how to fake sincerity. Although Melancon likewise doesnt exactly light up the room, he has tried to tag Vitter for his role in the D.C. Madam Affair and his retention of an aide with a record of domestic violence. Melancon will have to intensify those attacks if he hopes to gain traction.
In the D.C. Madam case, Vitters cell number turned up several times in Deborah Jeane Palfreys phone records, and he has either lied or failed to come clean about his involvement with prostitutes in New Orleans and Washington. More recently, ABC News reported several weeks ago that Vitter in 2008 retained an aide who had been arrested numerous times including once for holding a female friend at knifepoint for more than an hour, cutting her badly enough to require stitches, and threatening to kill her. The aide, Brent Furer, resigned last month after news of his arrests became public.
ABC and others claim that Vitter not only kept Furer on staff, but also placed him in charge of womens issues for the senator. Vitter denied the latter claim after ducking reporters for almost two weeks. After the denial, Beth Meeks, executive director of the Louisiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said that she had visited Vitters office shortly before Furer resigned and that Furer was sent out to meet with her to discuss the senators views on domestic violence legislation. A number of Washington information services also listed Furer as Vitters point man on womens issues. Score one for Melancon.
Vitters strategy of dodging the issue and hiding from reporters will be difficult to maintain on the campaign trail, but hes unlikely to change course unless Melancon and/or Traylor starts landing punches.
If Vitter has a weak flank, it is among women voters. His well-documented history of whore mongering may be easy for hard-core conservatives and other Obama haters to overlook, but many women voters who bought Vitters wholesome family man act six years ago may not forgive his serious sin so easily this time around. Nor are they likely to let him brush off the fact that he kept Furer on his payroll after the aides domestic violence record. Both scandals will come up, again and again, in debates. Vitter owes women an explanation on both counts.
It will be interesting to see how many debates Vitter attends and how he handles blunt questions about his scandals. For now, hes sticking to his script of running from the press while running against Obama and hoping nobodys paying too much attention to his own record of hypocrisy and cowardice.