- Associated Press - Monday, September 21, 2015

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Republican David Vitter’s rivals in the Louisiana governor’s race said Monday that the direct attacks the U.S. senator has launched against his GOP competitors indicate Vitter is struggling to hold on to his front-runner status.

Vitter released ads this weekend describing Republican candidate Jay Dardenne as a liberal and tying Republican contender Scott Angelle to President Barack Obama, reminding viewers that Angelle was a Democrat for 31 years before switching to the GOP.

Both men struck back Monday at Vitter, who didn’t show up for a candidate forum with Angelle, Dardenne and Democratic contender John Bel Edwards.

“We all know you don’t get attacked unless you’re right on somebody’s heels,” said Angelle, a state utility regulator from Breaux Bridge.

Dardenne, Louisiana’s lieutenant governor, said Vitter was using false, Washington-style attacks “purposely designed to mislead the public.” And he criticized Vitter for repeatedly skipping campaign forums, saying the senator doesn’t want to “talk to the voters of Louisiana.”

Though he’s escaped Vitter’s attacks, Edwards said the senator was trying to divert attention from an unimpressive record in Congress.

“Sen. Vitter is the consummate Washington, career politician and that’s not much to run on, so he’s going to distract and divide,” said Edwards, a state representative from Tangipahoa Parish. He said the approach “reveals Sen. Vitter is not nearly as secure in his position in this race as he wants you to believe.”

Vitter campaign spokesman Luke Bolar said the senator was traveling to Washington and couldn’t attend the forum, sponsored by the Press Club of Baton Rouge.

The election is Oct. 24, and Vitter has led most polls and has significantly outraised his opponents in campaign cash. But polls also suggest many voters hadn’t been paying attention to the race, and several competitors just started airing TV ads.

With the other candidates increasing their presence on television, Vitter and a super PAC supporting his campaign have responded with attacks.

In an email, Bolar said Vitter has been hit with criticism from the other candidates and outside PACs: “We aren’t going to let the story be one-sided, which is why we want to make sure voters know about Scott Angelle’s and Jay Dardenne’s liberal records.”

A pro-Vitter super PAC, called the Fund for Louisiana’s Future, started airing a spot this weekend hitting Angelle for a massive sinkhole that opened up in Assumption Parish in 2012 and forced 350 people from their homes.

The ad accuses Angelle, who was natural resources secretary at the time, of neglecting to provide information that could have helped prevent the sinkhole or warned families.

Angelle’s campaign said the ad was inaccurate - and said a law firm that works for Vitter and donated to his gubernatorial campaign effort represents the company blamed for the sinkhole.

Angelle said Vitter is hitting his GOP competitors because he wants to “change the conversation,” a seeming reference to the senator’s 2007 prostitution scandal, which has surfaced again as a campaign issue.

Vitter admitted to a “serious sin” after phone records linked him to Washington’s “D.C. Madam” prostitution case. He hasn’t commented further on whether he broke the law, instead saying his family had forgiven him and moved past it.

“I’m not running because David’s been wrong on fornication,” Angelle said. “I’m running because David’s been wrong on education, on medication, on transportation and on litigation. And I’m not worried about David’s attacks.”

Dardenne said Vitter hasn’t struck at Edwards because he’d prefer to face the Democrat in the Nov. 21 runoff election. Edwards retorted: “Jay, don’t worry about it. I promise you I’ll beat David Vitter.”

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