NEW ORLEANS — Before South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford's romantic disappearance in Argentina and Nevada Sen. John Ensign's fling with a campaign aide, there was Sen. David Vitter's "serious sin" involving an escort service.
When Vitter's scandal broke in 2007, some left his political career for dead. Two years later, his re-election campaign is humming along. He has racked up more than $3 million in his campaign treasury. Christian conservative leaders have come to his defense. The head of Louisiana's Republican party says Vitter deserves another term representing the state, and Vitter has yet to draw a strong GOP opponent as some had predicted.
Still, Vitter will be facing voters with Republican scandals still fresh in the public's mind, and his campaign could offer an early glimpse into how forgiving voters will be toward politicians who preach family values on the stump but don't necessarily practice them in their private lives.
"He's not nearly as vulnerable for actual defeat as it was presumed he was within months after his public admission," Shreveport, La., political consultant Elliott Stonecipher said. But there could be hurdles, Stonecipher and others said.
Moderate Democratic Rep. Charlie Melancon is sending signals that he will enter the race, giving Democrats perhaps as credible a candidate as they could hope for in the deeply conservative state. And Vitter could yet face a challenge from within his party. Throw in the possible candidacy of porn star Stormy Daniels, who insists she is seriously considering the race, and Vitter's personal life could play a prominent role in the campaign.
Vitter's critics appear eager to exploit the matter in part because Vitter has yet to acknowledge whether laws were broken or fully account for what happened when his phone number turned up among records of a Washington area escort service authorities said was a front for prostitution.
Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Eric Schultz said Vitter "will have lots to answer throughout this campaign, including ... his transgression." Melancon spokesman Bradley Beychok added that Vitter "has a long history of not practicing what he preaches and whatever opponent emerges is going to play that out in a lot of ways."
Vitter, meanwhile, has continued deflecting questions on the matter after a brief statement of apology for a "serious sin." He said in a television interview recently that he and his family are prepared to deal with it in the campaign.
After keeping a low profile following the scandal, the first-term senator has re-emerged as a vocal critic of Democratic policies.
He voted against a host of President Barack Obama's Cabinet nominees and sharply attacked Obama's spending plans, while introducing a series of symbolic resolutions on issues such as allowing prayer in schools and establishing criminal penalties for desecrating the U.S. flag.
His aggressiveness may have re-established his conservative base and helped fend off Republican challengers, including a potential scare from Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council, who considered running.
Gene Ulm, a Republican consultant who does polling for Vitter, said voters are in no mood to hear attacks about Vitter's personal life. Instead, Ulm said, the election will be largely about Democrats' handling of the economy. Officials at the National Republican Senatorial Committee already are signaling that if Melancon runs, the GOP would focus its campaign on his support for recent economic bailouts and stimulus spending.
"We know that midterm elections are a referendum on the party in power," Ulm said. "When you have an economic environment like this ... if it doesn't have to do with people's economic worries and hardships, it's just immaterial."
Other independent analysts agreed that Obama's unpopularity in the state – he got less than 40 percent of the vote in November – could make things difficult for any Democrat.
Stonecipher said Obama's numbers "will be toxic in Louisiana" by the time of the election, while University of New Orleans political scientist Edward Chervenak said Vitter is simply "a better ideological fit with the state than any Democrat right now."
Louisiana has a reputation for tolerating misbehavior. Witness former Gov. Earl Long's cavorting with stripper Blaze Starr in the 1950s, former Gov. Edwin Edwards' frequent one-liners about his reputation as a womanizer and former Congressman William Jefferson's re-election to a ninth term after FBI agents said they found $90,000 in bribes he'd taken stashed in his freezer.
But if polls show the first-term Vitter struggling, Republicans could decide he is too weak to hold the seat, the analysts said. His biggest threat then could come from the right, possibly from Secretary of State Jay Dardenne, who already has statewide name recognition, or even Gov. Bobby Jindal, who so far has denied any interest in the race.
For now, that scenario appears unlikely, and with qualifying for the primaries less than a year away, time is growing short for potential opponents to start raising money for a credible campaign.
"Someone's going to have to announce soon," said Chervenak, who added that Vitter is likely hoping there is not another Republican scandal to remind voters of his own transgressions – "another Mark Sanford or something like that."
Ben Evans reported from Washington.