BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — What was expected to be an easy romp into the Louisiana governor's mansion for Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter is turning into a competitive race that he could lose to a Democrat — albeit a pro-gun, anti-abortion Democrat who touts his military background rather than this party affiliation.
If state Rep. John Bel Edwards snags a victory in Saturday's election, he'd be the first Democrat to win a statewide race in Louisiana since 2008. It would be a stunning turn of events unthinkable only a year ago, when Vitter was stockpiling cash for the campaign and workers at the state Capitol already were referencing "Gov. Vitter" in private conversations.
No matter the outcome, the race will go down as one of the most brutal and expensive ever in a state with a long history of colorful campaign clashes. A prostitution scandal, allegations of spying, intra-party feuds and an intervention from one of the bearded men of "Duck Dynasty" — this race has it all.
Vitter has run an ad accusing Edwards of wanting to release "dangerous thugs" from prison. Edwards responded with a TV spot claiming Vitter chose "prostitutes over patriots." The men do not hide their mutual dislike. A recent debate escalated into a near shouting match.
"You will say anything at any time. You are unconstrained by the truth," Edwards told Vitter, who accused Edwards of acting "holier than thou" and "not living by the honor code" he regularly espouses.
Edwards, a little-known lawmaker from rural Tangipahoa Parish about 75 miles north of New Orleans, began his campaign struggling to raise money in a state presumed to be rock-solid red. But the election has become a referendum on Vitter, who has the baggage of a 2007 prostitution scandal and a scorched-earth political style that made enemies within his own party.
Democrats have rallied around their candidate, while Vitter is having trouble uniting Republicans. In a significant snub, one major GOP primary contender, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, crossed parties to endorse Edwards. Another Republican primary candidate, Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle, has noticeably stayed silent.
"The polling is very consistent. About a third of Republican voters don't like Vitter. That's a high number in your own party," said Joshua Stockley, a political science professor at the University of Louisiana at Monroe.
Edwards has capitalized on voters' unease with Vitter. He's campaigning on personal integrity, a resume that includes a West Point degree and tenure as an Army Ranger and speeches that downplay his Democratic roots and stress bipartisanship.
"This election is not going to turn on party. It's going to turn on leadership and character," Edwards said.
Vitter replies that Edwards is misrepresenting a record filled with votes supporting teacher unions and trial lawyers and opposing business interests and education reform efforts.
"John Bel Edwards is trying to create this myth that he's some sort of moderate," Vitter said.
In recent weeks, Edwards has outraised and outpolled Vitter. He appears to have benefited from the high unpopularity of term-limited Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, who is seeking the GOP presidential nomination. Edwards tags Vitter as representative of a "third Jindal term."
Jindal, who hasn't made an endorsement, rejects suggestions he's damaged Vitter's chances: "If Sen. Vitter's facing challenges in his race, those are due to other issues."
Vitter and outside groups supporting him have sought to tie Edwards to President Barack Obama, whose unpopularity in Louisiana rivals Jindal's.
However, Vitter's attempts to tag Edwards as an "Obama liberal" and focus on policy differences have been sidetracked by other themes, most notably his apology in 2007 for a "serious sin" after he was linked through phone records to Washington's "D.C. Madam."
In a blistering recent ad, the Edwards campaign said Vitter missed a vote to honor soldiers because of a phone call from the prostitution service, choosing "prostitutes over patriots." Outside political groups have hammered Vitter on the issue.
The persistent criticism has forced Vitter to address the scandal more directly.
Last week, Vitter released an ad describing how he "failed my family but found forgiveness and love." He then released a TV spot with Willie Robertson from reality TV show "Duck Dynasty" saying: "I know he's made some mistakes, but who hasn't?"
Political consultant Roy Fletcher, who worked on Angelle's campaign, questioned why Vitter waited so long to address a scandal that was an obvious vulnerability.
"He's trying to build back his positives in some way, and that's pretty much what he's got to do," Fletcher said. "But it would certainly have made a different race if it had been in November of last year and the mea culpa had been the first thing out of his mouth."
Vitter's also been hit with allegations that a private investigator working for his campaign secretly filmed the Jefferson Parish sheriff and others. Vitter called it a "silly coffee shop incident" and claimed the investigator was researching an illegal scheme to pay for false statements against Vitter.
Edwards shot back: "How can this man be entrusted with the state police?"
Now, Fletcher thinks a Democratic win is "far more possible today than anybody thought it was."
Still, Vitter supporters say their internal polls suggest the race is tightening — and they cite the recent Kentucky governor's race, where Republican Matt Bevin won despite polls showing him lagging his Democratic opponent.
"I feel great about where we are and where we're moving in the race," Vitter said.
Follow Melinda Deslatte at twitter.com/melindadeslatte.