Mark Davis: A frustrating — and rare — Senate candidate debate
Debates are good. Voters learn a lot. Candidates learn even more.
If debates are good, a lot of debates are even better. And if one hour is good, two is even better. The presidential campaign may have overdone it for a stretch, but there is no doubting that in a long series of two-hour tilts, we learned plenty about the 2012 Republican field. We saw who was up for the challenge and who was not, who got better and who did not, who delivered a message well and who did not.
That’s why last week’s debate among the top four challengers for Kay Bailey Hutchison’s U.S. Senate seat was so frustrating. First, it was the second — or for some, the only — debate voters have seen. And, worse, it is probably the last.
Blink and you missed it. One hour does not even begin to allow participants to cover enough ground, and it gave both candidates and questioners an urgent burst of adrenaline that created a frenetic pace. Plenty of voters are plugging in to this race for the first time. They need more debates, and they need them long enough to contain important detail.
Since challengers would be likely to agree to a debate every other day, it is easy to presume there is pushback from the front-runner, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who just wants to get to the May 29 primary with as little interaction as possible with his three main rivals, all of whom long to take chunks out of him.
Ted Cruz, Tom Leppert and Craig James all want to win, but their short-term goal is to aggregately keep Dewhurst below 50 percent, forcing a runoff.
The first thing to realize is that this may not happen. Candidates with as much name recognition and money as Dewhurst are very hard to beat. Add in the fact that most Texas Republican voters have a fairly high opinion of the stewardship offered over the years by the Perry-Dewhurst team, and it is fair to wonder why Dewhurst would even have to worry about a runoff.
There are two reasons: the ascendancy of worthy alternatives and a play-it-safe strategy that may not be working as planned.
Friday night’s debate showed ample reason why Dewhurst may not crave the debate stage: It is not his friend. It reminded people how much he has sought to avoid exposure to his rivals, and how mixed the results can be when he encounters them.
Some people are just better at governing than debating. But candidates with a track record and a support base as enviable as Dewhurst’s should get out on the debate stage and show confidence in defending that record, even when under fire from several directions.
Cruz, for one, would then have to rely more on his criticism of Dewhurst as insufficiently conservative, which may or may not work well in a season where Texas government has been branded as a bunch of budget-slashing radicals.
So where is this race a month before early voting, and is Cruz the only challenger who can send this to a runoff?
Leppert’s is a hard candidacy to evaluate. His appearances and ads have been unfailingly impressive. He arguably had the best night on the debate stage. But is that enough to spring him into the 20-30 percent range necessary for second place, should Dewhurst fail to reach 50?
And it is hard to know whether James’ impressive political debut takes a bite out of Cruz’s tea party appeal or Leppert’s North Texas base.
More debates and more polls would give us some meat to gnaw on in evaluating these questions. Instead we are left to consume little more than the barrage of advertising that within a month will grow to annoy many and enlighten few.
Radio talk show host Mark Davis may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org