NEW ORLEANS – His party may have taken a severe beating in last year's elections but Republican Sen. David Vitter's political career, once seemingly crippled by a sex scandal, appears to be on the rebound as he takes on a high-profile role of being critical of congressional Democrats and President Barack Obama.
Even before Obama took office, Vitter was becoming more visible, speaking out against the automobile industry bailout. Then he became a chief Senate critic of the $787 billion dollar stimulus bill that passed in February. He also shook up debate on another spending bill with his attempt to add an amendment canceling future automatic pay raises for members of Congress.
"He's been able to not only emerge from a quiet period, he's come on like gangbusters," said Baton Rouge-based political analyst Bernie Pinsonat.
This is familiar territory for Vitter, who rose to prominence in the Louisiana Legislature by doggedly pushing agendas often unpopular with colleagues in both parties, most notably a successful effort to limit legislators to three consecutive terms.
Obama administration spending measures, upper-income tax increases and budget proposals opposed by Louisiana's oil and gas industry have presented an opportunity for Vitter to regain his political footing in a conservative state that went overwhelmingly for Republican John McCain last fall, Pinsonat said.
"It's just worked out perfect for him. A lot of the stuff on Obama's agenda is very unpopular in Louisiana and who better than David Vitter to go out and champion the opposition," Pinsonat said.
Vitter disappeared for weeks and kept public appearances to a minimum for months after news broke in July 2007 that his telephone number appeared in the records of a Washington-area escort service authorities said was a front for prostitution. He admitted only to a "serious" sin, stonewalled the details and bided his time. He also tersely denied a subsequent claim by another prostitute that he had been a client.
Now, he's on the offensive.
"I think this is an effort to rehabilitate his reputation in the state as kind of the point man against President Obama's agenda," said Ed Chervenak, political science professor at the University of New Orleans.
Vitter did not respond to an interview request for this article.
However, in a sign he may be able to hold on to his socially conservative base, Tony Perkins, president of the anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage Family Research Council, recently declared his support for Vitter. He had been considered a possible challenger.
Louisiana Democratic Party director Chris Whittington said Vitter still needs to answer questions about the prostitution scandal. Whittington said Vitter also will be politically vulnerable because of his opposition to Obama's attempts to bring the economy out of a recession.
"I think the hardcore Republicans, it appeases them. But the working class people of this state, when they realize that he has voted against all the recovery funds to help them, they're not going to like it," Whittington said.
Whittington is mum on who might run against Vitter. Among those mentioned often is Jim Bernhard, president of Baton Rouge-based contractor The Shaw Group and a former party chairman.
Republican Secretary of State Jay Dardenne said he has been approached by Republicans worried about the scandal and a more recent embarrassment for Vitter — a Roll Call newspaper report that the senator had a temper tantrum after missing a flight at Washington Dulles International Airport. Vitter said the report mischaracterized the incident.
Late night TV comedians and others are still having fun with Vitter. And an adult movie actress from Baton Rouge has made enough noise about a possible run that a Baton Rouge business magazine included her among the names in its unscientific online poll on the race.
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