Too Late for Noriega?

Noriega gaining traction in last leg of race

The U.S. Senate race and public television have been closely linked in the past week, with Republican incumbent John Cornyn and Democratic challenger Rick Noriega meeting up in debate at KERA's studio in Dallas and then taping separate episodes of Texas Monthly Talks at Austin's KLRU.

Last Thursday's debate was the second in as many weeks on public television, and this one proved much more productive than the one in Houston, which had overly constrictive time regulations. This time, Cornyn and Nor­i­ega were given 90 seconds to give answers and adequate time for rebuttal. It also seemed more productive for Noriega, who has finally polished his stage presence and no longer has the deer-in-the-headlights look that has previously plagued him whenever confronted with tough questions.

One example came with questions about his past performance as a state rep. Cornyn has repeatedly hammered Norie­ga over the famous flight of House Demo­crats to Ard­more, Okla., in 2003 – a quorum-busting attempt to block Tom DeLay's infamous pro-Republican, middecade redistricting scheme. Last week, Cornyn labeled it "cutting and running," and Noriega got no chance to reply. This week, he had a smart, well-rehearsed defense: "That political act was something that needed to be done to protect the Constitution, to protect the Voting Rights Act, when an egregious power grab was attempted in this state by overturning an election. That's something done in Third World countries. We were vindicated, in fact, by the U.S. Supreme Court that the Voting Rights Act had been violated, and what we did was right."

When Cornyn again called it "cutting and running" and said Noriega should have stayed to "fight the good fight," Noriega shot back: "I don't believe voting for a $700 billion bailout with an enormous amount of pork in it was standing up and fighting for Texas families."

Noriega also came across well on Texas Monthly Talks. At one point, interviewer Evan Smith questioned him about whether he supported Barack Obama's position that, if Pakistani forces knew of Osama bin Laden's position in Pakistan and were "unable or unwilling" to go get him, then the U.S. would strike inside Pakistan, invited or not. Noriega gave an unequivocal yes: "Without blinking an eye."

At a postshow Q&A, I pressed Noriega further on the point. Given that our invasion of Iraq is blamed for inflaming anti-American passions in the Middle East, I asked, would it really be a good idea to encroach into yet another country unbidden – and possibly make it harder for a pro-U.S. government to maintain power? Noriega, unfazed, replied that military force is only one slice of the war on terror and listed other options such as building up schools and infrastructure that would support the rise of moderate Islam in the region. However, he said, "the sword is still part of the options," and it is also important to go after "the men who killed all those families in New York."

In Cornyn's KLRU appearance, taped on Tuesday, Smith repeated his Pakistan question. Cornyn was at least willing to acknowledge that "Pakistan is a sovereign nation and ally," but his answer was still basically the same: "I would do what needed to be done."

Is Noriega hitting his stride too late or just in time? As of Sept. 29, pollster Ras­mus­sen Reports put Cornyn at 50% support and Noriega closing in at 43%. Closing that gap will be tough. One of the KERA questioners, Texas Monthly's Paul Burka, later said on his blog: "I thought he was impressive. If he had $5 million and five weeks, he might make a race of it." He doesn't. At last check he had only about $1 million and less than two weeks.

Noriega's Texas Monthly Talks interview airs tonight (Thursday) at 7pm on KLRU (Channel 18, cable Channel 9). Cornyn's will air Oct. 30 at the same time. Archived video of the debate may be viewed at www.texasdebates.com.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

John Cornyn, Rick Noriega, Texas Monthly Talks, Evan Smith, election

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