The Politics of Debating
What Medina's GOP debate inclusion and exclusion means for White and Shami
By Richard Whittaker,
3:59PM, Sun. Jan. 17, 2010
Thursday's Republican gubernatorial debate was exactly what could have been expected. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison took potshots at Gov. Rick Perry, Perry took potshots at Hutchison, and Debra Medina threw haymakers at both. But now there's the big question of how that debate affects the campaign cycle for both Republicans and Democrats.
First, the quick analysis of the debate. Hutchison had to prove, after a terrible and incoherent campaign, that she was still a real contender, and arguably did that. Perry seemed surly and defensive, and was not helped in his attempt to portray Hutchison as a DC monster when she countered many claims about both her and his records. However, he dragged up the 'will she/won't she' issue of whether Hutchison will actually stand down after the primary, and her answer that she will depart got drowned out by the crowd and the moderators.
Medina made rookie mistakes on the big stage, like wasting her limited answer time with off-topic statements of gratitude for being invited. However, she got her message out, and was helped by Hutchison when the senator threw her a softball question about property taxes. Clever work by Perry's lead challenger: Medina is expected to take chunks out of the right wing of Perry's support, while Hutchison is eying the center-right and walkover Democrats that want Perry out in the primary. So building up a challenger that doesn't have any crossover with her voter base brings Hutchison closer to a run-off.
This now raises the question of if or when the Democrats will have a gubernatorial debate. At the moment, the answer is no and never. With seven filed candidates, there's little for lead candidate, former Houston mayor Bill White, to gain from entering into a debate, and there's no debate without White. The candidate that would probably gain most would be Farouk Shami, who many Democratic party activists see as Tony Sanchez with more money and less of a chance.
White is not a great campaigner, constantly saying that he doesn't want to get into the kind of punditry and personal attacks upon which modern campaigns thrive. However, Democrats hope that he personifies what most campaign pros know in their hearts: That great candidates are often terrible office holders, and vice versa. His campaign's plan is to highlight the policy steak, not the PR sizzle. The obvious comparison they want to make against Perry is that not only is he all sizzle but he set the kitchen on fire during his time in office. However, White still tried a little political jujitsu on Perry's Tenth Amendment-boosting anti-Washington interference proclivities when he said, "Under Governor Perry, the State of Texas has time and time again imposed mandates on cities and counties, and as Governor that is something I'd stop."
Of course, Republican operatives see an opportunity to use Shami to break White's campaign. For example, conservative news blog Texas Insider ran a column by Stephen Raines called The Case for Farouk Shami. This is part two of a five-part series (the first was on Medina) about the leading candidates on both sides. Of course, that would be Stephen Raines the former policy analyst for ex-Speaker Tom Craddick and a political consultant who has names like Pres. George W. Bush, ex-Attorney General John Ashcroft and retired conservative Democratic congressman Bill Brewster of Oklahoma on his client list.
It's a reasoned tactic: By constantly portraying Shami as the other Democrat, it puts pressure on White to accept a debate. After all, didn't the Republicans invite Medina?
Of course, the Republicans blew any moral superiority on this issue when the Dallas Morning News and KVUE owners Belo Corp. announced on Jan. 12 that Medina wasn't invited to the second debate, scheduled for Jan. 29. Actually, it was more an announcement by omission: After all, calling it "The Belo Debate: Perry Versus Hutchison" was a bit of a clue. They cite Federal Communications Commission rulings that they don't have to include anyone that's polling less than 15 percent. Of course, that announcement was made before the PBS debate, so if Medina did manage to dent Perry's conservative flank, that may force a rapid do-over or some awkward questions.