And Then There Were Three

White, Glass and Shafto debate, while Perry goes AWOL

White, Glass and Shafto: Launching bodyblows on the AWOL Gov. Perry at Tuesday's KLRU Texas Gubernatorial Candidate Debate
White, Glass and Shafto: Launching bodyblows on the AWOL Gov. Perry at Tuesday's KLRU Texas Gubernatorial Candidate Debate (Photo by Richard Whittaker)

If anything summed up the three candidates at Tuesday night's KLRU Texas Gubernatorial Candidate Debate, it was what was on their podium. Green Party candidate Deb Shafto brought a small stack of files: Libertarian Kathie Glass had some well-organized talking points and a letter: And Democrat Bill White had a small pad and a pen.

There was little doubt who won the debate. White showed pitch-perfect loyalty to message, hammering home his image as a serious contender to be the state's top executive: An image that had been smoothed to perfection after eight grueling months on the trail. Glass turned in a more surprisingly polished performance than expected from a Libertarian candidate, but her presentation was undercut by some out-there answers about terminating Medicaid and school districts building "Taj Mahal"-esque stadiums. Shafto lacked either the message discipline of White or the finishing of Glass, but undoubtedly spoke with passion and from the heart.

There was a little grumbling from some corners of the press corps that there wasn't a quick and easy quote from White. For example, Bud Kennedy at the Fort Worth Star Telegram harrumphed that the former Houston mayor rambled a bit in the lightning round (because heaven forfend that there be a little nuance in politics.) However, there were no quotes at all from No Show Jones AKA The Invisible Man AKA The Man Who Wasn't There AKA the Harry Houdini of Texas politics, Gov. Rick Perry.

Moderator and Dallas Morning News Austin bureau chief Christy Hoppe generously said, "Regrettably, incumbent Governor Rick Perry has declined to join us for this debate, and for that I believe we are all the poorer."

Both Glass and Shafto were less forgiving about Perry's absence. The incumbent had claimed he was protesting White's refusal to hand over old tax records (a criterion set solely by Perry), but the Libertarian called that merely an excuse to avoid any kind of debate. "He really doesn't have answers to the hard questions that I would pose to him," she said, arguing that his claims to conservative credentials on cutting budgets and strengthening the border would collapse "if he had to answer questions other than from a sympathetic questioner."

The Green candidate was equally dismissive of Perry's refusal to turn up. Shafto said, "If your actions are not subject to questions from people who don't agree with you, then you don't belong in public office."

Back in the debate, there was a vague hope that the organizers might have left an empty podium on the stage, representing Gov. Goodhair's absence. Instead, the only moment of drama or tension was when Glass compared making White governor to leaving a three-year-old in charge. In unspoken agreement, all three unified in their opposition to the state's absentee landlord. White turned every question into a cudgel on Perry's failings. When asked about unemployment, he talked about the Goodyear plant in Tyler that hadn't received money from the Texas Enterprise Fund: Question budget cutting, and he pointed to how the Texas Department of Transportation had its budget wrong by $1 billion: Talk about anything that Perry has done well, and his response brought up how little time he works.

This full-on assault on Perry was why Glass had her letter: It was, she informed the audience, "a strongly worded letter" for the governor, demanding that he use the state's military forces to secure the border, and she was going to give it to him next time she saw him. Such stunts will always evoke images of Joe McCarthy's "I have here in my hand a list" moment, or British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's "piece of paper" speech, so Shafto took a simpler approach: When asked whether there was anything she liked about Perry's incumbency, the answer was a big old no.

And what about that notepad on White's dias? According to his campaign staff, it was probably put up there by KLRU, and to has to be said, he never looked at it once. That was the difference here: Out of all three present, White was most ready for prime time. Considering his absence, Perry may well just have been watching prime time.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS POST

Bill White, Rick Perry, Elections, KLRU, Green Party of Texas, Deb Shafto, Libertarian Party of Texas, Kathie Glass

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