How U.S. Sen. David Vitter plans to shake his ties to a dead madam, cozy back up to the Religious Right and (maybe) campaign against a porn star. The bell tolls for David Vitter. It also tolls for everyone at St. Francis Xavier Church in Old Metairie. It’s a reverent sound, and the beginning of Mass. Wooden pews are folded up, thin pages are flipped over and back, and whispers from the congregation become hushed. This is where Vitter, Louisiana’s junior senator, feels at home.

Still, his fellow parishioners can’t help but stare or take quick glances. It’s all just curious, like seeing the local weatherman grocery shopping or spotting Deuce McAllister in front of the line at Burger King. Observers take note when Vitter drapes an arm around his wife or stands to serve as the morning lector. Just like he did on a regular basis before being linked in 2007 to Deborah Jeane Palfrey, the D.C. Madam.

Despite the shame of the sex scandal, he still shows his face. He clings to his old role in the parish. This, as much as anything Vitter does these days, is another exercise in Vitter’s version of a mea culpa, the first leg of his transformation from political outcast to a Republican redeemed.

Louisiana’s citizenry has seen a performance like this before, albeit more personal and revealing the first time around. It’s been about 20 years since Pentecostal preacher Jimmy Swaggart tearfully told his Baton Rouge congregation that he was sorry for dallying with a prostitute. Swaggart’s public confession and apology were delivered skillfully and with great public remorse, but without actually providing details of the transgression. “I have sinned against you,” a tearful Swaggart said at the time.

When Vitter had to issue his own statement two years ago about his role in the D.C. Madam scandal, he took a strikingly different path. Rather than face the cameras and beg for forgiveness with tears in his eyes, as Swaggart did, Vitter issued a press release acknowledging “a very serious sin in my past.” He didn’t even go through his staff to send out the press release, but rather issued it himself late on a Monday night — when he realized the story was going to break the next day anyway. When he finally got caught on camera, Vitter apologized, didn’t mention The Deed and got out of there. Fast. “This was a very serious sin in my past for which I am, of course, completely responsible,” Vitter said. No tears. No begging for forgiveness.

While Swaggart has been able to hold together a few shreds of his evangelical empire, Vitter’s fate remains in political limbo. Nearly 20 months have passed since he was outed, yet Vitter remains solidly woven into the fabric of American pop culture, serving as the butt of jokes on late-night talk shows and as fodder for scandal countdowns on basic cable.

But Vitter, probably more so than anyone else, believes firmly that Louisiana’s voters are forgiving nonetheless — and, he hopes, easily distracted. Campaign commercials bankrolled by Democrats will not be kind. It’s doubtful they’ve forgotten anything, from Palfrey committing suicide in the face of jail time to Vitter reportedly receiving phone calls from her escort service during roll call votes.

As for Vitter’s strategy, it’s all about diversionary tactics. He has to overshadow the obvious and rebrand himself.

In that regard, Vitter has taken a guerrilla-style approach to resurrecting his public image. Expect to see his name tattooed to any high-profile issues that move through the Senate. When the auto bailout vote raged last year, he described it as “ass-backwards” from the Senate floor and threatened to filibuster, grabbing national headlines in the process. During the confirmation hearings of Secretary of State nominee Hillary Clinton last week, Vitter stole the spotlight again with tough questions about conflicts of interest and ended up being the sole dissenting vote when Clinton was confirmed by a bipartisan 16-1 vote.

With regard to Christian conservatives, Vitter isn’t just talking the talk and leaning on faith. He hopes to win them back with policy. Based on legislation he has in the hopper for this year, he’s going to protect the American flag, end abortion, further public prayer, advance home schooling, curb illegal immigration, enforce the death penalty and get rid of drugs.

From within his own party, there are influential leaders pushing Secretary of State Jay Dardenne to challenge Vitter in the GOP primary. On the Democratic side, Congressman Charlie Melancon is the clear frontrunner if he wants it, but it’s becoming increasingly unlikely that he’ll give up his House seniority. As of last week, he wasn’t returning calls about 2010. Former Gov. Kathleen Blanco wants to recruit a Democrat, but there’s a shortage of serious names floating to the top. Vitter scoffs at the notion of Blanco running herself, smugly telling WWL-TV that he would write a check to her campaign to get her to run.

Ultimately, Democrats will push one theme to the forefront: sex. Operatives have been hard at work trying to find an adult film star to qualify for the race. Hopes were initially high about landing Adult Video News award winner Stormy Daniels, a Baton Rouge area native, but, like Melancon, her prospects are dwindling. Democrats may have to settle for a stripper or, um, other sex worker. But the project is in the pipeline. “It’s going to happen,” one operative says. “It’s getting all wired up now.”

The sideshow candidate will make it all the more difficult for Vitter to avoid questions about his infidelity. Or, she could trivialize the affair and inadvertently help Vitter. Thus far, he has taken cues from his top supporter, Gov. Bobby Jindal, who has made an art form of dodging sensitive questions. But, while Jindal displays Ali-like footwork, Vitter’s driver once loudly backed his car into a “No Parking” sign trying to avoid pesky reporters. For now, Jindal is giving Vitter much needed help in fund raising.

Many hope that Vitter will never be redeemed. They may do well to remember that Vitter, the Lone Wolf of Louisiana Politics, doesn’t seek literal redemption, just political indulgence in the form of another term in the U.S. Senate. For now, he is atoning for his “very serious sin” by simply staying in the game and enduring the humiliation. Recent events suggest that, soon enough, he will go on the offensive. Whether voters choose to forgive him remains an open question

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