Up close and personal, candidates hit each other hard in debates as campaigns race to climax

By Liz Sidoti, AP
Thursday, October 7, 2010

Insult time, face to face, in campaign’s debates

WASHINGTON — “That’s a lie. You know that’s a lie. I never said it.”

That was Republican Linda McMahon going after Democrat Richard Blumenthal this week as the Connecticut Senate rivals shared a debate stage. Afterward, he insisted she was the one playing “fast and loose with the facts.”

Across the country, in California, GOP gubernatorial hopeful Meg Whitman pointedly blamed Democrat Jerry Brown for the disclosure that she had employed an illegal immigrant housekeeper.

“You put it out there and you should be ashamed for sacrificing Nicky Diaz on the altar of your political ambitions,” Whitman told Brown, who was standing a few feet away. He shot back: “You have blamed her, blamed me, blamed the left, blamed the unions. But you don’t take accountability.”

Candidates have been slinging mud from afar for months, their insults filling TV ads and peppering speeches. Now, in the campaign’s final weeks, they’re meeting up close in debate — in many cases for the only time — and getting right in each other’s faces.

In the run-up to Nov. 2, dozens of House, Senate and gubernatorial debates are scheduled in hotly contested races in places like Colorado, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Florida, Wisconsin and Illinois.

The face-offs can offer some of the only unscripted moments in the campaign. Though much planning goes on behind the scenes to ensure that candidates can satisfactorily answer questions, a debate is the rare time when candidates directly interact with each other and show the voters how they behave under pressure.

This close to Election Day, the in-person confrontations can change the trajectory of a race — or lock it in place. Republicans and Democrats alike say that dramatically altering the course is difficult after a final debate.

Those in tight races — like Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid and GOP challenger Sharron Angle — seek game-changing performances to sway the sliver of still-undecided voters in Nevada. Those with comfortable leads in polling, like Republican Rob Portman in Ohio’s Senate race against Democrat Lee Fisher, go into debates hoping to simply avoid stumbling and blowing their advantage.

The debates give candidates a forum to explain their positions or backgrounds directly to voters, circumventing the media filter. They get to rebut their foes’ claims and level their own criticisms.

Images matter just as much as words. How these politicians perform on stage — from posture to facial expression — can tell voters much about their character and their poise, and play into campaign narratives.

In the 2008 presidential race, Republican John McCain’s grimaces sometimes made him look like a grouchy old man next to the younger, polished Democrat Barack Obama. In 1992, President George H.W. Bush’s glance at his watch during one debate played into the notion that he was haughty. Both McCain and Bush lost their races.

At a debate in the 2000 New York Senate race, Republican Rick Lazio strode across the stage and demanded Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton sign a pledge banning unregulated financial contributions known as “soft money” from her campaign. The confrontation generated sympathy for Clinton while making Lazio look like a menacing bully.

Rewards can be sweet for candidates who exceed expectations or who benefit from opponents’ poor performances. But risks are enormous, too, particularly in the Internet age. Make a major gaffe, and it can go viral or become fodder for attack ads in the final days.

In this year’s Alabama gubernatorial race, Democrat Ron Sparks just rolled out an ad showing Republican opponent Robert Bentley during a recent candidate forum saying: “Not every child is going to college and not every child is supposed to go to college.” The two had been debating a plan to use state lottery revenue to pay for scholarships.

Said Bentley later: “Sometimes in a forum as you are speaking, sometimes things may come out different than the way you want them to come out.”

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, in her only debate against Democratic Attorney General Terry Goddard last month, lost her train of thought while discussing her accomplishments and endured about 15 seconds of painful silence. She also was put on the defensive when Goddard challenged her on an incorrect comment that headless bodies were turning up in the Arizona desert.

But, even though it was splashed over the Internet, the episode didn’t seem to damage her. She has, however, refused to debate Goddard again, content to sit on her double-digit lead in a state that gives her high marks for supporting an illegal immigration crackdown.

Florida’s trio of Senate candidates lambasted each other Wednesday.

“You haven’t been drinking the Kool-Aid, my friend, you’ve been drinking too much tea and it’s just wrong,” Gov. Charlie Crist, who is running as an independent, told Republican Marco Rubio, painting him as a radical conservative beholden to the tea party.

Rubio shot back at the Republican-turned-Independent Crist: “I think it’s always funny to listen to the governor attack me for the positions he himself held just six months ago.” And Democratic Rep. Kendrick Meek piled on: “Charlie Crist stands on a wet paper box. … You don’t know where he is.”

In Kentucky, tea party-backed Republican Senate candidate Rand Paul and Democrat Jack Conway traded verbal punches and repeatedly interrupted each other on the nationally televised “Fox News Sunday” last weekend.

“I’m not saying Dr. Paul is crazy. I think some of his ideas are out of the mainstream, and they’re out of touch with the values of normal Kentuckians,” said Conway, who is trailing in polls.

Sitting on a lead, Paul poked back even though he’s largely avoided attacking his rival: “We’re waiting for him to catch up a little bit in the polls and then we may refer to him more.”

Some candidates also still are debating the details of debates, including the number, location and format. In the Oregon governor’s race last week, Republican Chris Dudley, a towering former Portland pro basketball player, and Democratic former Gov. John Kitzhaber challenged each other to more debates during their only joint televised appearance. They differed on where to hold another.

No word on whether there will be more.

Associated Press Writers Phillip Rawls in Montgomery, Ala., and Nigel Duara in Portland, Ore., contributed to this report.

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