Friday, January 15, 2010
Republican gubernatorial debate short on substance, long on testiness
GOP candidates for governor took turns trading quips as they try to convince voters they're best suited for the state's top office.
DENTON For anyone hoping to come out of Thursday night's Republican gubernatorial debate with clear distinctions on how the three candidates differ substantively on the issues, "letdown" is putting it mildly.
But, for anyone who enjoys classic political theater fraught with several "he-said she said" moments, condescending laughs and smiles, and heated disputes over what constitutes a "fact," this debate was one for the ages.
Hosted on the campus of the University of North Texas, the debate marked the first time that all three candidates had been on stage together. Gov. Rick Perry, who is seeking an unprecedented third term in Austin, fielded attacks on his tenure from Texas senator Kay Bailey Hutchison and Republican Party activist Debra Medina.
Although the candidates did not necessarily articulate their positions on many of the issues, they did provide voters with a clear view of how they attempt to approach this campaign strategically leading up to the March primary.
So, who performed the best? Who lost ground, and who landed the best punch combos? Grab some popcorn and let's break down the tape.
Gov. Rick Perry
Perry's message seemed to be this: "Texas is a great place to live, the economy here is doing better than most places in the country, lots of people are moving to Texas, and a lot of that has to do with my policies. Re-elect me." (Not a direct quote.) When asked a question about how the candidates will address massive budget shortcomings in the next legislative session, Perry said, "Just like we did it 2003. We have the experience."
When pressed on Texas' rising unemployment numbers, which have doubled since 2002, Perry responded that Texas created 100,000 jobs in 2007 and 2008. Doug Dunbar from CBS-11 pushed the governor by saying, "just to be clear, Texas did lose more than the 100,000 jobs that were created in that period, correct?" Perry responded, laughingly, by saying, "I don't know how to explain this any simpler to you." Which, in short, embodies Perry's approach.
It was very clear from the opening question how Perry plans to deal with Sen. Hutchison -- paint her with the Washington brush. Perry used the word "Washington" more than 10 times in the hour-long debate. He wants to paint her as part of the "big government" problem that is encroaching on Texans' rights and paint himself as the true-conservative patriarch who has proven he can protect those rights.
"Oh no he didn't!" moment of the night for Perry: "We have heard that [the health care bill before Congress] is hanging by a thread; I hope our senior senator will get back to Washington D.C. and cut that thread. That's where she needs to be."
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison
Like Perry and Medina, Sen. Hutchison reiterated several times that Texas is the best place in the country to live, the greatest state in the union. However, her plan to attack Perry could be summed up as, "This is a great state, but if you leave this guy in charge much longer, it won't be." (Not a direct quote.) She hammered Perry on rising property and small-business taxes, points which he disputed. Hutchison said that in the time period that Perry claimed the state gained 100,000 jobs, it lost 300,000. She pointed out that our unemployment rate, while lower than the national average, is higher than in states in the surrounding area. She hammered Perry with stats like 30% of Texas children not graduating from high school, and tied that to the rising unemployment figures.
One of Hutchison's biggest problems in this primary is that she is seen as less conservative than Perry. This was made clearest on the issue of abortion. Perry, in-line with the state party's platform, believes that Roe v. Wade should be overturned. Hutchison's position is far more nuanced, and she struggled mightily to explain those nuances. Basically, the senator believes that if the decision were overturned, individual states would enact their own abortion laws, some of which would include late-term and partial-birth abortions, and this would lead to what she calls "abortion havens." But it took her a painfully long time to explain this position, which led to the moderator to inject a "is there a yes or no to this anywhere?"
Clearly, Hutchison is going to have to do something about this. However, the abortion issue was the only point in the night Hutchison really spent much time elaborating on her views on a specific topic. She spent most of her time attacking Perry's tenure and playing the "I'm a Texan in Washington to fight Washington" game.
"Oh no she didn't!" moment of the night for Hutchison: Each of the candidates was given the opportunity to ask one of the other candidates a question during the debate, although which candidate they were supposed to pose the query to was predetermined. Hutchison's question was for Medina, who she clearly does not view as her chief competition. So, in a stroke of political genius, Hutchison's question for Medina was something like this (paraphrase): As I travel around the state, I hear a lot of people unhappy with Gov. Perry's tax policies, has your experience been the same?" Translation: Go ahead and attack him for me right here, because he isn't going to be allowed to respond. Brilliant!
Medina was the Republican party chair in Wharton County. A registered nurse with no experience in elections, getting into this debate at all was a small victory for Medina's campaign. Her opening remarks pretty much sum up her approach to the primary: "When an average citizen can sit with a senator and a governor, it shows that this is still a government of the people, and by the people."
Medina falls more under the libertarian-wing of the Republican party, and while the other two candidates pay lip-service to being anti-Washington and anti-big government, Medina is the one who likely means it the most. She stated that the only thing the federal government should do is make treaties. Although she has very little chance of winning the primary, it was refreshing to have Medina on stage. She seemed more interested in actually articulating ideological and policy-related differences than the other two. However, she did her fair share of painting with a broad brush, taking every opportunity she could to call the governor and the senator part of the "big government problem."
"Oh no she didn't!" moment of the night for Medina: This one wasn't really an attack on another candidate, but it certainly was shocking. Asked about her views on what restrictions should be placed on gun ownership in Texas, Medina explained she doesn't believe there should be virtually any. She confirmed that she does carry a gun in her car, and that she doesn't possess a concealed hand gun license (a CHL is not needed to carry a firearm in a vehicle in Texas). The moderator asked her, "Do you carry your gun into the grocery store with you?" Medina replied, "I don't. I'd like to, but I don't."
So the night was testy, contentious, and extremely "politicky" without being much about policy. Things are sure to get uglier down the stretch, and it will likely come down to how effective Hutchison is in tying the economic woes of Texas to the policies of Perry.
To watch Thursday night's debate in its entirety, go to www.texasdebates.org.
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