Stephanie Grace: Vitter brings his A game to campaign

You don’t have to like U.S. Sen. David Vitter — and let’s be honest, lots of people in politics don’t — to appreciate his strategic prowess, particularly around election time.

And you don’t have to support Vitter’s gubernatorial aspirations to have noticed that he’s bringing his A game to the campaign’s early days.

Vitter’s earned headlines this summer by staking out attention-getting policy positions. At a Baton Rouge Press Club appearance in June, he strongly hinted that he’d accept the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion. More recently, he came out strongly for the Common Core education standards. Both moves create a contrast with Gov. Bobby Jindal’s nationally driven stances, which helps send the message that a Vitter administration wouldn’t represent a continuation of the status quo. And indeed, Vitter insists every chance he gets that if elected governor, it would be his last elected or appointed political post.

And both also underline a separate but just as tactically driven goal of softening Vitter’s hard-line image, of suggesting to voters who would otherwise be drawn to a more moderate Republican like Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne that Vitter wouldn’t be so harsh after all.

Vitter’s strategy was just as evident in a recent wide-ranging interview with C-SPAN.

Asked about his demand that thousands of unaccompanied minors flooding the U.S. border be quickly dispatched back home, Vitter talked of sending these children back to their families and keeping others like them out of the clutches of the dangerous characters who are transporting them here. And in response to a question about his opposition to President Barack Obama’s plan to curtail power plant emissions, Vitter focused less on the proposal’s impact on big business than on the potential cost to the “poor and the most vulnerable” in terms of rate hikes.

Vitter’s familiar hard edges are still there below the surface, of course. He continues to bash Obama’s policies, from the health care law to environmental efforts, relentlessly. He’ll surely still employ targeted tough talk when talking to his base, as he did in a recent fundraising appeal that directly contradicted his newfound support for Common Core.

“I am prepared to lead on these issues as Governor — to get our economy moving, hold the line on taxes, and protect our citizens from ObamaCare, the president’s insane environmental regulations, heavy-handed big government policies like ‘Common Core,’ and all the rest,” Vitter wrote to prospective contributors.

Asked to elaborate on his boss’ apparent change of heart on education, Vitter spokesman Luke Bolar explained it away as a “drafting mistake by the direct mail fundraising firm that should have been caught.”

As for the compassion that Vitter sought to convey in the C-SPAN interview, well, let’s just call it selective.

Vitter’s take on the dangers facing the children trying to get to the United States might be accurate, but he skipped the part about how many are fleeing truly terrifying conditions in their own countries.

His discussion of another divisive policy area, whether to raise the long-stagnant minimum wage, was equally incomplete. Vitter talked up the many well-paying jobs coming online in Louisiana’s energy industry, thanks largely to a boom in natural gas, and said the real issue is training people to take those jobs. But what about the many Louisianans who work in low-paying service industry jobs? He had nothing to say about them.

As for the effect of climate change on low-lying Louisiana areas such as Grand Isle, Vitter simply shrugged off concerns, declined to offer an alternative to the Democratic policies he criticized and said Republicans are focused on the economy instead.

If Vitter seems to be heading in two directions at once, there’s a smart reason for that. He can already count on the state’s most conservative voters to be in his camp; if he’s going to expand his support, he’s got to appeal to the more centrist voters who make up Dardenne’s base. The more votes he takes away from Dardenne in an open primary, the greater the odds he’ll face a Democrat such as state Rep. John Bel Edwards in the runoff. That’s a much more favorable scenario for him than an all-GOP runoff in which his opponent would be able to count on most Democrats.

So Vitter’s message to voters is clear: He’s not as down-the-line conservative as you might think.

And just as obvious is the message he’s sending to his opponents. If they want to compete, they’d better bring their A games, too.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com. Read her blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/gracenotes. Follow her on Twitter, @stephgracenola.