Noriega Bloodied by McMurrey

Lesson number one: Your opponent can't beat you if you don't let him in the ring.

In Billy Lee Brammer’s classic 1961 novel about Texas politics, The Gay Place, U.S. Sen. Neil Christiansen consults with the Texas governor who appointed him, Arthur “Goddamn” Fenstemaker – a fictionalized version of LBJ – about his upcoming election challenge. “[S]houldn’t I should debate him?” Christiansen asks. “Oh hell no,” Fenstemaker replies. “You’re above all that now.”

Fenstemaker’s wisdom is also conventional wisdom in the political world: If you’re the front-runner with the name ID, you have nothing to gain and everything to lose by agreeing to a debate with your opponent. No point in letting the underdog turn in a sterling performance and gain some traction on you. In my opinion, real-life Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Rick Noriega learned that lesson Wednesday night. After his campaign had said the five-term state representative from Houston wasn’t likely to debate his leading challenger, Corpus Christi schoolteacher Ray McMurrey, Noriega finally relented and took on his rival this evening in Jester Auditorium on the UT-Austin campus. (The other two Democrats, Gene Kelley and Rhett Smith, were not invited due to their lack of a clue.) The result? McMurrey’s Rocky Balboa landed some solid punches on Noriega’s Apollo Creed.

Fortunately for Noriega, there weren’t that many people there to see it – the auditorium was less than half full and the event wasn’t televised, although Noriega’s campaign did netcast the debate live from its Web site.

Noriega’s biggest problem – one he really needs to fix before he faces Cornyn, which I’m still assuming will happen – is that his answers are squishy. McMurrey directly challenged Noriega, and Noriega strenuously avoiding returning the fight, almost ignoring his primary opponent and acting as though it was Cornyn on the stage with him.

A prime example: While most of the questions came from the audience, at the end of the debate, each candidate was allowed to ask a question of the other. When McMurrey challenged Noriega to fight for “full coverage,” Noriega wouldn’t come right out and say “No” – instead, he answered the question indirectly by saying he would fight for “access to affordable health care,” which isn’t the same thing. That wasn’t good enough for McMurrey, and I suspect many in the audience. And conversely, for his question, Noriega just lobbed a softball at McMurrey that was guaranteed not to boomerang: “What do you see as the greatest disappointment by Senator John Cornyn?” Hell, if that’s Noriega’s idea of debate, he might as well have continued with his refusal to debate at all.

In today’s issue of the Chronicle, we endorsed Noriega. I still stand by that endorsement. In 2008, Texas is still a very conservative state, and running a hardcore (not to mention politically inexperienced) liberal like McMurrey in a statewide election would be almost as bad as running no candidate at all. (If you want to argue with me, look up the results of Victor Morales’ challenge to Phil Gramm back in 1996.)

But McMurrey impressed me last night. The problem is that he’s running for the wrong office. I hope he runs again – but I hope he’ll set his sights on something more realistic, like the Texas or U.S. House of Representatives. By actually getting elected, I think he could be a hell of a public servant. UPDATE: Listen to the debate here.

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