A few observations about the debate, my specific observations below.
Media: I thnk the questions were a pretty mixed bag. I guess I’ll never understand why questions about a candidate’s strategy are important in these types of discussions. As a debate coach, I know I am always going to be frustrated by these ‘show debates’, but generic questions only encourage vagueness and weak remarks. As an example, I thought Mike Dennison’s question about when the candidates would differentiate themselves was a mistake; why not ask the real question and have them do the differentiating?
The more specific questions, like Dennison asking Morrison why we should ‘patch up’ a broken health care system were much more effective at generating answers that meant something. When Charles Johnson asked his question about oil profits, it allowed so many answers that we didn’t learn much. Why not ask directly-do you support a windfall tax?
John Morrison turned out to be a less polished speaker than I anticipated, but he was clearly the best candidate at staying on message. To some extent, that was easy, because he only had one message–his resume as State auditor. I have to give Morrison a ton of credit for one part of his strategy, though. While his answers were often very vague or avoided the direct question asked of him, he very convincingly gave the illusion of specificity by including a lot of statistics. On key issues, I was disappointed. On Iraq, he repeated the same easy lines about taking care of soldiers and no permanent bases, but wouldn’t committ to getting the troops out. On tax cuts, he didn’t address estate taxes or say he would repeal the Bush cuts. On the ethics issue, he made a unsubstantiated claim that the Missoula Independent article was factually flawed, without saying how.
Minor note: Morrison should stop listening to the advisor who must be telling him to say ‘we’ when talking about himself. It doesn’t make him sound less self-absorbed; it makes him sound like the Queen of England.
Paul Richards has been a real dilemma for me throughout the race. I admire his passion, his beliefs, and his specific positions. He just doesn’t have a chance in this race, in part because the media has ignored him, and he is too far left for the state. Throughout the debate, he was the most impressive to me on issues, with specifics for reducing oil dependence and the need for war. Moderates and conservatives often deride liberal visions of the future as urealistic, but I will take Paul Richards’ utopian hopes over the faith-based nightmare of the Bush Administration any day.
Jon Tester gave a solid, if unspectacular performance, but one that was far too passive if he hopes to win this race. Other than the specific question to Morrison about CAFTA and a reference to Morrison’s ethical issues, he was running too much like a frontrunner, not someone who needs to come from behind. This is the point in the race where Tester needs to make clear that he is a candidate who is distinct from Morrison. I (and the voters) already know that Tester favors a quicker withdrawal from Iraq than Morrison. I don’t think Tester can win this race attacking Conrad Burns and being a nice guy with good ideas. He needs to define himself in opposition to John Morrison.
If he could talk about his granddaughter in every speech, he’d win this race. That genuine passsion was his best moment in the night, as cliched and awkward as it was.
At the end of the debate, I found myself wishing that Tester would be more aggressive, that Morrison would talk more about the future than his past, and that Richards had a chance.