Last night’s gubernatorial debate at the University of Louisiana- Lafayette saw the candidates stake out distinct policy positions and double down on their attacks just two days before early voting starts in the October 12th primary.
For the most part, Governor John Bel Edwards, the incumbent and clear frontrunner, stuck to the script.
He hammered home his message of fiscal stability, Medicaid expansion, improved funding for education and slow, but steady, economic growth.
The real distinctions were drawn between his Republican challengers, Congressman Ralph Abraham and businessman Eddie Rispone.
Rispone stood out as the only candidate who supports a constitutional convention designed to give legislators more control over taxation and spending.
Abraham said he supports the death penalty and as governor he would find a way to resume executions in the state. Rispone opposed, citing his catholic faith.
The two Republicans spent a large portion of the evening challenging each other’s conservative credentials.
Rispone angered state Republicans last week when he aired attack ads targeting Abraham.
He brought those to the debate stage Thursday night in a segment that let the candidates pose questions to one another questioning Abraham’s commitment to President Donald Trump.
Abraham brushed off the claims, saying he supported Trump’s legislative agenda in Congress.
“I didn’t just put a bumper sticker on my car,” Abraham said.
“You know that the target that we should be working on is the one standing to your left,” he added, attempting to redirect Rispone’s attention to Edwards.
Edwards used the opportunity to take a swipe at Rispone for his campaign contributions to former Governor Bobby Jindal. Edwards said Rispone’s donations contradicted his image as a political outsider and were an endorsement of what Edwards described as “failed policies.”
“Bobby Jindal is not running for governor, I’m running for Governor,” Rispone replied.
Format changes gave the moderators more opportunities to ask follow up questions throughout the debate, and Edwards faced some pushback for making claims of greater prosperity while 1 in 5 Louisianans are in poverty.
“The way you attack that is by increasing personal income,” Edwards said. “That’s what we’re doing in Louisiana. It’s the highest it has ever been.”
When candidates said they would address a $14 billion backlog of infrastructure projects, moderators posed a question that had been missing from previous policy discussions -- How would they raise the needed funds?
Rispone and Abraham said they would do it without raising the state’s gas tax by cutting waste in the state department of transportation.
But moderators argued that even eliminating the entire administrative budget of the Department of Transportation and Development would leave the candidates more than $13 billion short of their goal.
The debate comes on the heels of recent poll by JMC Analytics showing Edwards within striking distance of the 50 percent support he would need in the October 12 primary to win the race outright.
If he falls short, he’ll face the second place finisher in a runoff election, November 16.
The same poll showed the race for second narrowing, with Rispone still trailing Abraham, but within the margin of error.