As far as drama goes, Thursday night’s 1st Congressional District debate didn’t disappoint. No big wins, in my view. A few observations:
The winner: The untimed format, favoring quick and punchy answers, worked to Republican Raul Labrador’s advantage. In that sense, I’ll give him a win.
But this definitely was an “eye of the beholder” night. For voters friendly to Rep. Walt Minnick’s message of independence, he did fine. For voters who want to overthrow the House of Representatives and put it in the hands of conservatives, Labrador gave voice to their sentiment.
Offense vs. defense: Playing in front of a decidedly pro-Labrador crowd, the challenger did a decent job of putting a Democratic Congress on trial — arguing, accurately enough, that Minnick’s no votes did nothing to stop health care reform or economic stimulus. As a challenger, Labrador did put the incumbent Minnick on defense — much like Democratic Senate candidate Tom Sullivan did two nights earlier, in his punchy debate against Sen. Mike Crapo. But unlike Crapo, I don’t think Minnick was as adroit at pointing up where he differs from Labrador.
In his close, Minnick tried to hang Labrador with some of his past positions: saying Idahoans should be able to pay bills with gold and silver; saying state legislatures should once again elect U.S. senators; and favoring a withdrawal from the United Nations. Effective, but belated.
Winning over the undecideds: Here, I’m not sure either Minnick or Labrador delivered the goods. And for swing voters turned off by the negative spirit of this campaign, Thursday night didn’t provide much of a respite. The exchanges over attack ads were fiery, with Minnick and Labrador accusing each other of lying, but ultimately they covered no new ground.
In the Idaho newspapers poll, conducted Sept. 13-15, Minnick had 46 percent to Labrador's 36 percent, with 16 percent undecided.
Detour: Neither Minnick nor Labrador impressed me with their answer to a question about shipments of oversized oil equipment along U.S. 12 in Northcentral Idaho. Minnick had to explain away his initial written support of four shipments, saying safety concerns have come up since then. “Not all of the representations made to me and my colleagues are 100 percent accurate.” At least Minnick recognized that the shipments raise issues about wilderness and wild and scenic river protection — and said he might hold a hearing.
Labrador fared worse. He said the shipments are a state issue. But the state representative offered no position, and argued, unconvincingly, that Gov. Butch Otter has done a “good job” of handling the issue.
The spin sprint: Twenty-two minutes after the debate, the Minnick camp fired out a news release saying their guy dominated the event.. Seven minutes later, Team Labrador called it "another victorious debate" for their guy.
Quick question: Does a campaign ever issue a news release saying their candidate had an off-night? Didn't think so.
Unsolicited career advice: Independent Dave Olson battled to get a little airtime Thursday night, but he threw a couple of elbows at both frontrunners: “If you’re good in the state Legislature, Raul, maybe you should stay there. Mr. Minnick, if you’re good as a businessman, maybe you ought to go back into business, because what you’re doing in government isn’t working.”
The loser: Well, it wasn’t a great night for wolves. Asked whether they believe the predators should be hunted as a means of population control, the candidates couldn’t say yes fast enough.
The science backs them up, but this isn’t just about science. Every politician could use a sanctuary, I suppose.
Missed the debate? It's online at Idaho Public Television, along with the post-debate panel discussion.