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Analysis: Candidates have 6 weeks to sell Louisiana voters on their message, draw attention


BATON ROUGE, Louisiana — Louisiana's three-day candidate registration always provides a dose of political theater, but the latest qualifying period also offered clues about individual strategies, talking points and areas that contenders want to dodge.

With the fields set for the Oct. 24 ballot, contenders for office hope voters start paying attention amid polls showing little interest so far.

An onslaught of advertisements is on the way, with candidates hoping to grab attention, shake things up or hold their leads over the next six weeks, without giving a rival an opening for attack.

Top of the ballot are open seats for governor and lieutenant governor.

Nine candidates registered to run for governor by the close of the three-day qualifying period. But the competition is among four well-financed contenders: Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne and U.S. Sen. David Vitter, all Republicans; and state Rep. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat.

Gov. Bobby Jindal is term-limited and cannot run for re-election.

As front-runner and fundraising winner, Vitter's trying to hold onto his lead. He's selling himself as the man with the plan, touting a 60-page document he carries with him to candidate forums and events.

"No other candidate in this race has anything similar. I think by comparison they have sort of vague political rhetoric," the senator said.

Vitter's plan, however, is short on specifics on one of the most critical areas for the state, proposals to address the state's systemic budget problems and overhaul its tax structure. And Vitter has stuck to largely scripted forums that provide little ability to press the candidate for details.

One thing Vitter certainly wants to dodge is his prostitution scandal. A political action committee already has launched an attack ad reminding voters that the senator was linked to a Washington prostitution ring in 2007, and more such efforts are expected from Vitter critics.

Angelle, with his thick Cajun accent, is branding himself as the family man, the collaborator and the regular guy. He talks of "a brand of policy that says not only does policy matter, but people matter, too."

That approach could run into trouble with voters who expect Louisiana's governor to be the sort of strong figurehead and leader who drives ideas and shapes the course of the state.

Dardenne, meanwhile, is positioning himself as the experienced policy wonk who has run state agencies, balanced budgets and knows the ins and outs of Louisiana's government and its finances. He can quickly get into the weeds of policy discussions and seems to embrace them.

"No one has the breadth of experience that I have at various levels of government," said Dardenne, a former state senator and former secretary of state.

Running on his long track record in state government may not play well, though, when people in Louisiana and around the country seem interested in political outsiders rather than people with knowledge of systems that can often seem broken.

As the lone major Democratic contender, Edwards is describing himself as the anti-Jindal, seeking to tie each of his GOP opponents to the state's unpopular, current governor. He says Angelle, Dardenne and Vitter in one way or another "all represent a third Jindal term" in office.

"It's time to turn the page on the Jindal era," he said.

But while Jindal's favorability ratings in Louisiana may be dismal, the Democratic Party isn't faring much better. Democrats have been unable to win statewide office in recent years in the conservative state, and that's a high hurdle for Edwards to overcome.

Four contenders have signed up for the lieutenant governor's race: Baton Rouge Mayor Kip Holden, a Democrat; and state Sen. Elbert Guillory of Opelousas, former Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser, and Jefferson Parish President John Young, all Republicans.

The lieutenant governor leads Louisiana's Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism and serves as the figurehead for the state's $11 billion tourism industry. With each of the candidates touting how they would promote the industry, it's hard to distinguish strong differences among them, making their greatest challenge simply getting through the clutter to voters.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Melinda Deslatte covers Louisiana politics for The Associated Press.

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