BATON ROUGE, Louisiana — Two Republican contenders to be Louisiana's next governor charged GOP front-runner David Vitter with lying about them Thursday, seeking to capitalize on Vitter's recent slip in the polls as the four major candidates in the race squared off in their first TV debate together.
With Vitter's position atop the field seeming to take hits in recent weeks, Republicans Scott Angelle and Jay Dardenne sought to gain traction by striking at the U.S. senator, hoping to distinguish themselves ahead of the Oct. 24 election.
Dardenne, Louisiana's lieutenant governor, called Vitter "Desperate Dave," saying he misrepresented Dardenne's record and spending in office. Angelle, a state utility regulator, echoed the theme, calling Vitter "Sen. Pinocchio" in attacks against him.
Vitter defended the advertising he's run against his GOP rivals.
State Rep. John Bel Edwards, the lone major Democratic candidate in the race, escaped many of the direct attacks, except when Vitter criticized Edwards' support of President Barack Obama.
The four men tangled on issues of abortion, education standards and marijuana — but spent little time on the state's deep financial problems.
The three Republicans all supported Gov. Bobby Jindal's decision to stop Medicaid funding to Planned Parenthood, after a series of undercover videos by an anti-abortion group led to accusations that the organization was profiting from fetal tissue sales. Planned Parenthood has denied the allegations.
Edwards called the videos disturbing, but said more investigation was needed.
"I believe we should let that investigation play out and determine all the facts," he said. He added that before yanking funding from Planned Parenthood, "we've got to make sure that there are alternative locations available for people in Louisiana to receive those same services."
Vitter used the question to describe his endorsements from several anti-abortion groups and to accuse Dardenne of voting "six times for abortion and against life." He also struck at Edwards, who opposes abortion, saying his support for Obama undercuts his claim of being anti-abortion.
"If that's consistent with a pro-life voting record, then God help us," Vitter said.
Edwards replied: "I am a Democrat. I support the president. I have issues with many of the positions taken by the president. This is one of them."
In response to Vitter's criticism, Dardenne said he didn't vote to support abortion rights, but was scored poorly by an anti-abortion organization because of his votes on several bills that dealt with cloning and stem cell research.
"Desperate Dave is at it again," Dardenne said.
On marijuana, all four men opposed the legalization of recreational marijuana use.
Angelle, Dardenne and Edwards supported the Louisiana Legislature's recent passage of a medical marijuana bill that could get pot to people suffering from cancer, glaucoma and a severe form of cerebral palsy, through a limited number of heavily regulated distributors.
Vitter said he opposed state legalization of medical marijuana, and he called the recently passed legislation as "riddled with problems."
"We need to back up," he said.
Vitter has led the Republican field for months, but his poll numbers in recent weeks have slipped as outside groups have slammed him in TV and radio spots reminding voters of his 2007 prostitution scandal.
Dardenne vaguely referenced the scandal Thursday, while Angelle was more direct, using a question about the Common Core school standards to say Vitter has been wrong on education and on "fornication."
Despite the attacks, Angelle and Dardenne so far have been unable to pull ahead because they are battling over the same voters. And they've been hit with attack ads by both Vitter and a super PAC supporting him.
Edwards appears to have locked up enough of his party's base that he's projected to be on track for the Nov. 21 runoff with Vitter, unless something shifts in the remaining three weeks before the election.
Louisiana's open primary places all candidates, regardless of party, in a showdown against each other. If no one receives more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two vote-getters advance to a runoff.
Thursday night's debate at WDSU-TV in New Orleans was aired in several media markets. Also participating Thursday were two lesser-known candidates: Democrat Cary Deaton and Jeremy Odom, an independent.