BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Republican Ralph Abraham has abandoned his claims to avoid intraparty fighting in Louisiana's governor's race and has begun taking more direct hits at GOP contender Eddie Rispone, as both men try to unseat the Deep South's only Democratic governor.
With early voting ongoing through Saturday, Abraham, a third-term congressman from northeast Louisiana, has released an ad calling Rispone desperate and saying Rispone is lying to voters about Abraham's record.
The 30-second spot comes two weeks after Rispone, a Baton Rouge businessman largely self-financing his campaign with his own millions, launched an attack ad about Abraham's congressional votes and challenging his support of President Donald Trump.
Rispone's ad drew backlash from some Republicans who worried it could damage both campaigns and give an assist to Democratic incumbent John Bel Edwards instead. At the time, Abraham said his focus would remain "aimed solely" on defeating Edwards, not returning fire on Rispone.
But since then, some polls show Rispone gaining ground and even surpassing Abraham ahead of the Oct. 12 election, after Abraham had consistently polled in the race's No. 2 spot. With the release of that polling data, Abraham has responded with targeted criticism of Rispone in forums and the new ad.
Rispone has defended his approach as drawing distinctions with the candidates in the race, and Abraham's campaign spokesman David Weinman said the response is about "correcting lies." Weinman didn't say in which TV markets the ad is running.
"It's unfortunate that we had to devote time and resources rebutting blatant lies from my Republican opponent. We will not launch personal attacks against my Republican opponent, but I will defend my conservative record and values," Abraham said in a statement.
Abraham had largely ignored Rispone in the first TV debate featuring all three major candidates, trying to frame the race as a two-man competition between him and Edwards. But in last week's televised debate in Lafayette, Abraham and Rispone tangled directly.
Abraham struck at Rispone's claims that he's the only businessman in the race and the outsider. Abraham said he has run multiple businesses, and he said Rispone's been involved in politics "a long time as a donor," longer than Abraham's been in office.
Meanwhile, Rispone again criticized Abraham for a 2016 statement suggesting Trump should consider stepping aside from the GOP presidential nomination after a recording emerged in which Trump boasted about groping women.
Louisiana Republican Party leaders have worried about repeating the GOP infighting of the 2015 governor's race that helped Edwards win. After Rispone released his attack ad on Abraham, several Republican officials announced they were endorsing Abraham.
Polls show Edwards well ahead of his competitors, but Abraham and Rispone are trying to keep him from an outright primary victory. All contenders run on the same ballot regardless of party. If Edwards doesn't top 50% of the vote, he'll face the second-place finisher in a Nov. 16 runoff.
Edwards, Abraham and Rispone will face off against each other during a final debate on Wednesday, October 9 in Shreveport.
The debate will be broadcast LIVE on KATC.