Charlie Melancon and David Vitter have divergent strategies in Louisiana Senate race

Republican incumbent Sen. David Vitter has remained out of sight in his bid to win a second term, banking his hopes on Republican support, a vast cash advantage and a barrage of nationally-themed commercials. It is an approach that has infuriated his Democratic opponent.
By Jason Horowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 27, 2010

David Vitter is taking the out of sight, out of mind approach to campaigning.

The Louisiana senator's campaign headquarters shares space with a 7,200-square-foot abandoned showroom in the New Orleans suburb of Metairie and is surrounded by abandoned oil drums, auto-supply warehouses and extensive construction on the adjacent causeway. Roads are blocked off, and visitors have to cross a field of crabgrass and gravel to get to the front door. Inside, Vitter for Senate lawn signs and full boxes of fliers are stacked against the wall or on the rust-stained carpet, and papers on an unmanned welcome desk are covered in doodles.

In what looked to be the war room, a few staffers milled around, tossing paper balls and eating cookies. The campaign manager refused to come out of his office, and the press secretary, who is not in the habit of returning press calls, was nowhere to be found. Neither was the candidate. Two miles away, in a wealthier part of the suburb, a little white dog barked when the doorbell rang inside Vitter's handsome brick home. No one came to the door.

"He comes and goes," said his next-door neighbor. "I don't see him often."

Three years ago, Vitter publicly acknowledged that he had frequented a prostitute. Four months ago, reporters revealed he had kept a close aide on staff despite an arrest for brutally beating his girlfriend two years earlier. Now, in a state that vastly preferred John McCain to Barack Obama in a year much less amenable to Republicans than this one, Vitter is counting on his vast cash advantage, a barrage of nationally themed commercials and, above all, the state's legendary capacity to forgive or forget.

It is a strategy that has infuriated Democratic candidate Charlie Melancon.

"I think it's obvious he doesn't want to be confronted with questions he doesn't want to answer," Melancon, 63, said in his thick Cajun accent at the Franklinton fair north of Lake Pontchartrain on Friday. Those questions, Melancon said, concerned more than only Vitter's "indiscretion," but "who paid for the hookers." Melancon had other questions: Who paid the "high-priced Washington lawyer" to defend Vitter's disgraced staffer, Brent Furer? Why did Vitter keep in his employ a man who had a record of "cocaine" use, drunk driving arrests and domestic "abuse"? Why was he allowed to work "on women's issues"?

The challenger echoed the speculation in some anti-Vitter circles that Furer remained on staff after the arrest because he knew about the senator's other dark secrets. "It's a real possibility," Melancon said. Melancon's wife, Peachy, who has taken a visible role in the campaign as it courts the white female voters who helped send Vitter to Washington, joined in. "Louisiana shouldn't reward someone who hired a psychopath to handle women's issues," she said.

Last week, Melancon's campaign released its own internal poll showing him within three points of Vitter. This could possibly be wishful surveying: Most public polls still consider Vitter a double-digit sure thing. Still, Melancon's campaign is arguing that recent attacks on Vitter's proposed legislation to shield oil companies like BP have had traction. The candidate hopes those factors, campaign e-mails from Ragin' Cajun James Carville ("I just saw the latest polling from Charlie's campaign, and it's gonna knock your socks off") and his obvious willingness to excoriate Vitter will catch Washington's attention and convince the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee to inject a vital jolt of last-minute commercials into Louisiana. Melancon's campaign argues that an allocation of even $500,000 could put him over the top. But as of now, Melancon admits he has seen "nothing new."

"We're dealing with a guy who has not been honest with his family, much less this state," said Melancon, a third-term congressman from the bayou, a Blue Dog Democrat who is anti-abortion, pro-gun and voted against Obama's health-care reform and climate change legislation. "He probably thinks Louisianans aren't smart enough to know any better, but we're reminding them."

'Pulling a Vitter'

Vitter is clearly content to ride the Republican wave and trust that it washes away sordid associations.

An attractive Harvard graduate and Rhodes scholar, Vitter had a record of reform while representing the district previously held by David Duke in the state legislature. In 1999, he won a House seat vacated by Republican Bob Livingston, who had resigned in an adultery scandal. A rising star, Vitter hit a bump in 2002, when he dropped out of the governor's race after allegations of a relationship with a prostitute arose. But in 2004 that all appeared forgotten, as he won a U.S. Senate seat, in part by appealing to women as an independent, compassionate Republican.

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