Jan 21, 2014 3:46 PM by AP
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter will be a candidate in Louisiana's 2015 governor's race, announcing his decision Tuesday in an email to supporters and immediately becoming the front-runner for the election.
"I believe that as our next Governor, I can have a bigger impact addressing the unique challenges and opportunities we face in Louisiana," the senator said in an email, first obtained by The Associated Press from a member of Vitter's staff.
Vitter's announcement ends months of speculation about the conservative senator's intentions, and his decision is expected to influence which other potential candidates enter the race.
Gov. Bobby Jindal is term-limited, so the race is wide open. Vitter can run without forfeiting his current position in the U.S. Senate, which isn't up for re-election until 2016.
If he becomes governor, Vitter said he'll push for excellence in education, budget stability, tax and spending reform and government accountability.
"This will be my last political job, elected or appointed, period. So my only agenda will be to do what's best for all Louisianians, from our best and brightest to our most vulnerable," he said in the email and an accompanying web video posted on his new campaign website.
Others who have said they will run for governor include: Republican Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne and state Rep. John Bel Edwards, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. State GOP Treasurer John Kennedy also has said he is considering entering the race.
Edwards said that he wasn't surprised by Vitter's decision and that he welcomed his opponent. He then attacked Vitter's job performance as an elected official.
"In his two decades of being a politician in Louisiana and Washington, he's clearly only excelled in obstruction or division, and those are not qualities that are going to move Louisiana forward," Edwards said. "The do-nothing Congress that he's been a member of so long is not a model that we should follow here."
Pearson Cross, head of the Department of Politics, Law and International Relations at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, said Vitter "poses a major problem for the other Republican contenders in this race."
"David Vitter has incredible name recognition and just won his last statewide election with nearly 60 percent of the vote," Cross said.
Dardenne, a moderate Republican, said he's not changing anything in the way he's campaigning for office and plans to focus on his vision for moving the state forward. He said he expected multiple GOP contenders to be in the race.
"I have a broad-based appeal beyond the Republican Party, I think," he said.
Vitter's approval ratings are high in Louisiana, and his ability to rake in campaign donations is strong. Already, the leader of a pro-Vitter super PAC said the organization has raised $1.5 million to support a gubernatorial run for the senator.
Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise applauded Vitter's announcement, calling it "encouraging news for Louisiana's future" and describing Vitter as a strong conservative leader.
Jindal, who often has had a frosty relationship with Vitter, praised the senator's work on education and his steadfast opposition to the federal health care overhaul. But Jindal said it's far too early to make any endorsements in the race to replace him.
Several polls taken before Vitter's announcement showed the senator as the front-runner in the gubernatorial race if he chose to run.
Vitter said an "active campaign" is still a year away.
He has proved to be a resilient politician, holding elected office for more than two decades as a state and federal lawmaker and easily winning re-election to a second U.S. Senate term in 2010, despite ties to a prostitution scandal.
Vitter admitted to a "serious sin" after phone records linked him to Washington's "D.C. Madam" prostitution case in 2007. He hasn't commented further on whether he broke the law, instead saying his family had forgiven him and moved past it.
Voters don't appear to hold the scandal against Vitter, with more than 58 percent giving him good marks in a recent Southern Media and Opinion Research poll about his job performance.
"I think he's far enough removed from that. Eight years is an eternity in voters' minds," Cross said of the scandal.