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Senator poised to win re-election in Louisiana despite 'sin'

By Evan Glass, CNN Congressional Producer
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Louisiana Senate candidates face off
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Sen. David Vitter, R-Louisiana, holds undisputed lead over Rep. Charlie Melancon
  • Democratic challenger has tried to highlight Vitter's ties to "D.C. Madam" scandal from 2007
  • Democrats, local media complain Vitter has avoided giving interviews
  • Vitter linking Melancon with President Obama, who's unpopular in Louisiana

Houma, Louisiana (CNN) -- Politics in Louisiana is a notoriously scandalous profession. Governors, congressmen and judges have all fallen from grace, be it by voluntary resignation or by involuntary criminal conviction. So when a conservative Republican senator was linked to a prostitution ring, many thought he'd fall by the wayside like so many others before him.

Think again.

Sen. David Vitter is holding an undisputed lead over Democratic Rep. Charlie Melancon in the final days of this election despite the challenger's attempts to highlight the incumbent's relationship with Deborah Jeane Palfrey, infamously known as the "D.C. Madam."

Check out Vitter's commanding lead in poll

Earlier this year Melacon even aired a two-minute ad titled "Forgotten Crimes" in which a narrator says, "Vitter won election to the United States Senate as a proud family-values politician, but, under the surface, Vitter was battling his own demons."

Melancon told CNN on Tuesday: "He ran as a family-values candidate and of course obviously proved he wasn't true to that. The best commentary I can make is this: When the women of the state sit down and talk to their kids about what's right, what's wrong, abiding by the laws ... [a vote for Vitter] is the antithesis of what they are preaching to their children."

Vitter denied multiple interview requests by CNN, but a campaign spokesman called Melancon "really desperate if he has to resort to personal attacks." The most Vitter has said about the affair was shortly after news of it broke in the summer of 2007, simply calling it "a very serious sin."

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Even as Democrats attempt to revive attention to the salacious saga, it appears that Vitter's current message to voters is resonating more effectively: Melancon supports President Obama.

Forty percent of Louisiana voters supported Obama in the 2008 election --- one of the lowest percentages in the nation --- which is why linking the Democratic congressman to the national party has so far proven a successful strategy.

Melancon might have voted for the $862 billion stimulus plan, but he voted against the final health care bill and environmental "cap-and-trade" legislation.

"You would think in a state that professes to be so strong in family values that this would have been a slam dunk for Melancon," said Stephen Sabludowsky, publisher of online news site Bayoubuzz.com. "But then Obama won and Melancon will be tied to that. He is trying to break away from that, but it is so hard here in Louisiana."

Armed by a nearly 2-1 fundraising advantage, Vitter has held no punches in his television ads that criticize Melancon for voting in favor of "failed Obama programs" and alongside House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Pelican State politicos say that Vitter is not the most revered politician, with an approval rating hovering around 50 percent and a rocky relationship with the rest of the Louisiana congressional delegation, but the fact he is not a Democrat will likely lead him to victory.

"If [the prostitute] had been revealed last year or earlier this year," said Jeff Crouere, a former executive director of the Louisiana Republican Party and a conservative radio host, "it would have been a bigger problem. But Vitter had three years to overcome it, and he used that time to align himself with Tea Party movement and against Obama."

Many voters interviewed voiced restraint in penalizing Vitter for transgressions between him and his wife, which they viewed as outside the bounds of politics.

"They all do it. Just look at Bill Clinton" said Summer Odom, a registered Republican who said she plans to vote for Vitter.

Criticism of the senator isn't only coming from Democrats. The local media are also grumbling that Vitter has not made himself more accessible, regularly denying interviews and instead choosing to meet with voters away from the glare of television cameras.

"He has been making himself available to the media; he just hasn't done every single request," Vitter spokesman Luke Bolar said. As for the criticism by Democrats that he is intentionally avoiding the press, Bolar added, "We don't need to answer to them."

Facing strong head winds, Melancon continues traversing the state, boasting of his leadership in fighting against the drilling moratorium enacted after the BP oil disaster -- an intensely personal issue in this energy-producing state.

He admits that Obama's order to halt new drilling may have hurt him among some voters, but that his tearful testimony during a Capitol Hill hearing on the subject was heartfelt and proof positive that he is a down-home politician, not a Democratic foot soldier.

"If the people of the state vote David Vitter back, it will prove they aren't as smart as I think they are. But I believe they are smarter than Vitter gives them credit for," Melancon said.

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