Page 2 of 3   <       >

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.

He broke with national Republicans to allow the purchase of Canadian pharmaceuticals online and ran a famous TV spot challenging the culture of corruption, in which he put Cheerios on his kids' breakfast table and said, "There's a lot of things I'm gonna change." His wife, Wendy, then walked into the frame and said, "Great, David, you can start by changing Jack," as she plopped their young son in his arms.

Wendy Vitter made her next notable appearance at Vitter's side in 2007, when he grimly acknowledged his "serious sin" after his number was discovered in the phone records of a prostitute known as "the D.C. Madam," who subsequently hanged herself. Vitter refused calls for his resignation and, by this year, had appeared to ride out the scandal and aftershock allegations by a New Orleans madam by shoring up his conservative base with blanket opposition to Obama and support for tighter requirements on abortion providers, a ban on flag-burning and a measure to block citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants. Then all his women problems came back in June, when ABC News broke the story that his close aide, Furer, had been convicted in 2008 for brutally beating and slashing his girlfriend.

As Vitter, 49, formally filed his reelection papers in July, he ducked questions from reporters asking him why he kept the staffer on payroll after the incident. When asked why Furer had been assigned to work on women's issues, Vitter denied that Furer handled such policies and then cut off questions.

Since then, Vitter has responded by vanishing from public view -- "pulling a Vitter," as campaign pros say in Washington -- but hitting the airwaves hard. One ad blames Melancon for illegal immigration and depicts Mexicans as gang thugs crossing through a hole in a fence under a flashing "Welcome." Another ad, called "No Regrets," binds Melancon to the deeply unpopular Obama.

Vitter's local outreach has been limited to relentless robo-calls to home phones and cellphones alike, a debate appearance later this week and sporadic posts on Twitter ("Had a great stop in Crowley this morning. And special thanks to the folks in Natchitoches who urged me to keep going," or "Thanks 2 "Sportsmen for Vitter" for introducing me 2 folks @ the Gun and Knife Show in Kenner today").

Vitter declined a request for an interview. When asked why the Vitter campaign hid the candidate's movements after a week of requests, its spokesman, Luke Bolar, answered, "I don't know."

Bolar also declined to respond to Melancon's allegations about the senator's protection of Furer, referring instead to past remarks, which he would not articulate or pass along. Furer's attorney, Thomas J. Kelly Jr., declined to comment. Vitter's spokesman also scoffed at Melancon's internal polling and pointed to public surveys that showed Vitter well ahead.

"It's clear his desperate campaign is flailing and he is trying to change the narrative," Bolar said.

In support of Melancon

On Thursday morning, a backdrop of local elected officials stood in a small room in the New Orleans Hilton as Melancon received the endorsement of New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and his older sister, Sen. Mary Landrieu.

Melancon then took the podium, and for the benefit of the half-dozen reporters and three TV cameras pointed at him, immediately spoke in Vitter-skewering sound bites.

"He has kept known criminals on his staff," Melancon said, arguing that Vitter made the state a "laughing stock" and that his voting record on equal pay for women, breast cancer funding and anti-rape legislation had demonstrated "disdain and disrespect" for women. As for Vitter going underground, Melancon said the tactic was to be expected. "After his episode with the D.C. Madam, for eight months he disappeared," he said, and this time around "he figures he can hide. He took knee down at the beginning of the fourth quarter, if you would, because he believes he can win this."

As the small news conference broke up and the elected officials trickled into an adjacent "Women With Melancon" fundraising event, Sen. Landrieu offered her explanation of why Vitter -- despite a career-endangering scandal -- still held a comfortable lead.

<       2        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company