- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Rep. Charlie Melancon of Louisiana, a leader of the conservative Blue Dog Democrats, was lying low and avoiding the press after announcing a few weeks ago that he was eyeing a run against Republican incumbent Sen. David Vitter.

He had reason to be wary. Republicans already had him in their sights, branding him “too liberal for Louisiana” as soon as he began toying with the idea of a Senate run.

But then he bounded onto center stage last week as the Blue Dogs broke with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, over the high cost of health care legislation that the leadership was trying to fast-track through the chamber.

Mr. Melancon (pronounced muh-LAW-saw), the only Democrat in Louisiana’s House delegation, could not have ask for a better occasion to polish his conservative credentials.

“The American people have legitimate fears about where this country is headed and what it means for their future and the future of their children,” he said.

Mr. Melancon said that “years of irresponsible governing and reckless deficit spending have left us in a deep hole, marred by record deficits and skyrocketing health care costs. It is our responsibility as members of Congress to meet these challenges head on, and that means passing fiscally responsible health care reform that provides real competition and consumer choice in the marketplace.”

That’s a sound bite that will play well in Louisiana whether Mr. Melancon runs for re-election in his Republican-leaning district or enters the Senate race in a state that rejected President Obama 58 percent to 39 percent in last year’s presidential election.

An even larger share of the presidential vote — 61 percent — went to Republican John McCain in Mr. Melancon’s congressional district, which includes the southern portion of New Orleans and southeastern and south-central Louisiana.

The question for the Melancon campaign is whether that will make up for a string of votes over the past two years supporting what many Louisianians view as Mr. Obama’s liberal agenda, including voting for the $787 billion economic stimulus plan.

Republicans no doubt will remind voters that Mr. Melancon voted 93 percent of the time with the Democratic leaders in 2008.

Nevertheless, Democrats are convinced that Mr. Vitter, tainted by a prostitution scandal, is vulnerable and that Mr. Melancon, after following the Louisiana political tradition of hemming and hawing for months, ultimately will get into the race.

For his part, Mr. Vitter has endeavored to rehabilitate himself politically since admitting in 2007 to “a very serious sin in my past.”

He has become a legislative thorn in the side of Mr. Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat. Mr. Vitter has introduced a slew of amendments to bills that either embarrassed or flummoxed the Democrats, including holding up an omnibus spending bill until the chamber acted to cancel automatic pay raises for senators.

Still, Melancon supporters say the recent attacks show Republicans are worried about a Melancon challenge to Mr. Vitter.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee hit him for co-sponsoring the “card check” bill that would make it easier for labor to unionize workplaces and for backing away from supporting the same bill.

In a series of press releases, the committee accused Mr. Melancon of “Washington doublespeak” and of failing to understand the basic premise of what it means to sponsor a bill.

The committee also posted a Web ad in which an announcer asks, “Who is Charlie Melancon? Is he a Louisiana ‘Blue Dog’ or Obama’s lap dog?”

“Republicans are running scared for a reason. Senator Vitter is vulnerable,” Melancon campaign spokesman Bradley Beychok said. “Partisan attacks from a Republican Committee will not impact Representative Melancon’s decision.”

He said his candidate is a bipartisan leader who focuses on the needs of Louisiana, not the needs of either political party. He said Republicans were trying to shift the conversation away from Mr. Vitter’s prostitution issue.

“Senator Vitter might refuse to come clean on his ‘serious sins,’ but Louisiana voters will have their chance to voice their opinion on Nov. 2, 2010,” Mr. Beychok said.

Vitter spokesman Joel DiGrado said the election was more than a year away and it was too early to engage Mr. Melancon in a campaign debate.

“Right now, Sen. Vitter is focused on being a critical voice in the Senate against President Obama’s huge increases in spending and debt and his efforts to take over more and more of the economy, including health care,” Mr. DiGrado said.

NRSC spokeswoman Amber Wilkerson said the barrage of attacks was more a shot across the bow of the Melancon campaign.

“There are no concerns surrounding Senator Vitter’s chances for re-election,” she said. “His polling and fundraising are both very strong. Melancon has clearly signaled that he is planning to run for Senate, and the NRSC’s pre-emptive attacks are intended to signal that if he jumps in, this will be a tough race for Melancon defending his liberal record in Congress.”

Senate Republicans, determined to make gains in 2010 after watching the Democratic caucus build a filibuster-proof 60-vote majority, have launched pre-emptive strikes in other states.

In Illinois, where Democratic Sen. Roland W. Burris has announced he will not seek a full term in 2010 after being appointed to the chamber this year by scandal-smeared former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, the NRSC has targeted every Democrat whose name has been floated for a possible run.

In Louisiana, however, the stakes are particularly high for Republicans. It is the only state where the party has made significant gains since Democrats won control of Congress in 2006.

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