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

By Jason Horowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 27, 2010; C01

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.

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.

"I would expect it to be hurting him more, but it is hurting him," she said, adding that she expected the gap to close. "When people are reminded and understand that he has been involved and closely connected to criminal activity -- I mean prostitution is not just a sin, it's a crime, you know?"

Landrieu walked into the next room and joined her brother onstage in the center of a packed ballroom, where they danced to "Who Dat" -- the Saints' Super Bowl anthem -- and restated their endorsements of Melancon. During the lunch break, Melancon worked the tables, decorated with pink balloons, and gabbed about growing up in a house full of women. Blanche Comiskey kissed him on the cheek and thanked him for making it to her 80th birthday party in New Orleans the week before. Unlike Vitter, she said, he was a man of "high moral caliber."

Melancon moved to the next table, and Comiskey offered her explanation of why Vitter still maintained a lead in the polls.

"Most people think he did not do anything wrong," Comiskey said. "This is the Big Easy. New Orleans is tolerant when it comes to moral slipups. But my daughter lives in Franklinton, and she says those Baptists out there will not tolerate it anymore."

A fair meet and greet

Melancon arrived at the Franklinton fair the next afternoon for a stop on his campaign's "Small Town Values" tour. Wearing blue jeans and brown boots, and with Peachy by his side, he introduced himself to just about anyone who passed.

"I like what you stand for," said Darlene Davis, a 65-year-old from Washington Parish, as she stopped him by the fair's entrance.

After he moved on, she said, "Vitter was okay" but added "the illicit affair, I can't get past that. I love the Lord. I know that God forgives our sins, but when you have a beautiful family and you do something like that to them, I just can't get past it."

Melancon talked to people about the spurs on his feet and his one-traffic-light home town. A former lobbyist for the American Sugar Cane League, he shouted "Y'all got some blue-ribbon cane" to men making syrup and "Y'all got the right idea" to people seated in the shade. He rubbed the heads of little kids and slapped men on the back. When people asked which party he belonged to, he carefully answered, "I'm a Louisiana Democrat. I'm pro-life, pro-gun. David Vitter doesn't even have a hunting license."

Melancon and his wife kept shaking hands and then stopped at a booth selling greasy bags of crackling. The owners invited Melancon to stir the pig fat in aluminum caldrons of boiling oil. A crowd gathered and Melancon laughed and then handed back the oar.

"Appreciate it," he shouted as he moved on, "Promise y'all I'll never embarrass you."

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