KENNER, La. (AP) - Vice President Mike Pence called on Louisiana's Republican voters to put a GOP candidate in the governor's office, trying Saturday to unite a fractured party with two competing contenders against Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards.
At a suburban New Orleans area rally, Pence said flipping the Louisiana governor's mansion would signal the state's support for President Donald Trump. He declined to pick a specific gubernatorial contender, saying either Republican U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham or businessman Eddie Rispone would be a strong state leader.
"These are two outstanding guys," Pence told supporters. "They're both right for Louisiana."
Republicans are trying to keep Edwards, the Deep South's only Democratic governor, from topping 50% of the vote and gaining outright victory in the Oct. 12 primary. In Louisiana, candidates run on the same ballot regardless of party.
But polls show neither Abraham nor Rispone emerging as the leading Republican contender, and GOP leaders worry squabbling among them threatens to bolster Edwards' chance of a primary win. Abraham and Rispone are splintering support, fundraising focus and messaging efforts.
Both candidates attended Saturday's event, but only briefly appeared on stage with Pence. Abraham described Edwards as "destroying our state" and "no friend to the patriots in this room." Rispone pledged to be a governor "to do for Louisiana what Trump has done for our nation."
Pence's rally followed tweets from President Donald Trump urging his Louisiana base to vote against Edwards. The vice president never attacked Edwards directly or mentioned the incumbent's name during the 30-minute speech Saturday, on the final day of the early voting period.
"If you've had enough of the do-nothing Democrats, vote Republican. Louisiana, if you want to send a message to Washington, D.C., send a Republican governor to Baton Rouge," Pence said, framing the governor's race as a commentary on the 2020 presidential election.
Edwards sought to keep the White House from getting involved in the race, repeatedly sidestepping criticism of the president and talking about his solid working relationship with Trump. He's criticized U.S. House Democrats' impeachment inquiry, calling it a distraction.
Though his efforts to keep Trump at bay were unsuccessful, Edwards' campaign kept their criticism Saturday focused on Abraham and Rispone and didn't take a direct dig at Pence's visit.
"It's not surprising that some politicians in Washington, D.C., are supporting members of their own party," Edwards spokesman Eric Holl. "Gov. Edwards has a long record of working across the aisle at the state and federal level."
Republicans nationally have targeted Edwards for ouster since his longshot election victory four years ago. But work to unify around one major, well-known contender failed, with U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise and Attorney General Jeff Landry all passing on the race.
Abraham, a third-term congressman from rural northeast Louisiana, and Rispone, a wealthy Baton Rouge businessman and longtime political donor, weren't well-known across the state. Neither has been able to break away as the top competitor - even though Rispone, who is largely self-financing his campaign, has spent nearly five times as much on the race as Abraham.
Party leaders' efforts to avoid intraparty fighting failed, with Rispone launching a TV attack ad against Abraham last month, followed by direct criticism of his GOP rival in debates. Abraham initially suggested he wouldn't wade into a dispute with Rispone. But when some polls showed Rispone moving into the race's No. 2 spot, Abraham abandoned that approach and started taking more direct hits at Rispone as well.
Concerns about GOP backbiting are particularly acute because Republicans blame attacks among their own candidates for helping to elect Edwards four years ago. In that 2015 race, two Republican candidates focused their criticism on GOP rival David Vitter instead of Edwards in the primary, and Vitter limped into the runoff.