COSTA MESA-- Meg Whitman. Steve Poizner. 60 minutes of debate in the race for the GOP gubernatorial nomination. More fun than you can possibly imagine on a Monday night. Wait, strike that last one.
And yet, tonight's debate features a first, and perhaps most important, chance for the candidates to set the narrative upon which most of this race will begin to be seen by California voters.
Rather than writing a 'pre' and 'post' debate analysis, let's try something different: a single posting that lays out some of the important things I'm watching for when the big show begins at 5:30 p.m., and which is then updated with how that issue actually played out. See for yourself what I thought would be important, and then what actually was. Hey, if I'm wrong, I'm wrong.
One thing's for sure: both candidates will proclaim victory. They always do.
The Quick Punch: Given the way the two candidates were trading barbs at the weekend Republican convention, it's probably worth pulling out a stopwatch to see how fast Poizner and Whitman start swinging tonight. As a follow-up, those first jabs probably aren't going to surprise anyone. For Poizner, it's going to be a night of decrying Whitman as too liberal; for Whitman, a night of calling Poizner a flip-flopper on the issues. That's actually a smart bet for the battle of the entire event, but my money's on Poizner going on the attack the quickest, especially as he continues to insist he's the more conservative of the two candidates. How'd They Do? Interestingly, no early punches. For much of the beginning, Poizner and Whitman seemed in sync on the big issues like downsizing government and no taxes. The first real difference came in a discussion of Whitman's plan for targeted tax cuts and Poizner's more sweeping cuts in taxes and spending, with Whitman claiming such a plan would cost the already depleted state budget $30 billion. Poizner later disagreed, with his staff explaining ways their modeling believes the Poizner plan actually brings in more revenue.
The only other unintended clash at the start: Whitman referenced an interview on another state's woes she heard on NPR, to which Poizner said, "I don't listen to NPR." Your blogger was amused.
The Big Theme: Speaking of the main message, it's hard to believe the two combatants will deviate much from the 'She's Too Liberal v. He's a Flip Flopper' narrative established over the weekend. 'Liberal,' of course, is the dirtiest word you can speak in Republican circles, and 'flip flopper' has been a nasty name to call someone ever since it was stamped on John Kerry's head in permanent ink in 2004. The question: can either candidate push the other back on their heels in this category, with some bit of factual info or some witty comment that momentarily leaves their opponent without a good comeback? How'd They Do? Again, not quite the contrast expected. Poizner actually seemed to stop short of calling Whitman a liberal, though he did get in a reference to the former eBay chief's support for Barbara Boxer in 2004. Whitman landed the more obvious punch in this category, launching into her campaign's frequent criticism of Poizner on illegal immigration positions they say he took while running for the Assembly in 2004 (more liberal, goes the argument) compared to his current call for a tough crackdown. Poizner later claimed that it's Whitman who has flipped when it comes to "amnesty."
Format Fanatic: If you watch enough political debates, you come to realize that the candidate who understands the format... and doesn't fight against it... often does well. Most challenging is the candidate who takes the time alloted to answering a question and uses it, instead, to try and settle a perceived grudge from four questions earlier. It may make the campaigns happy, but it often leaves viewers groaning because the question at hand gets short shrift. So I'll be watching to see who can get their answers and retorts into neat little packages and keep pushing forward, not who keeps dragging the event backwards. How'd They Do? They both stuck to the questions, which actually made the discussion stay lively and on topic. Impressive self discipline!
Generally, Specific: Debates aren't great venues for lots of policy details, but as a statehouse reporter who will cover the next governor up close, I'll be looking to see who can defend their positions or promises with some specific info. Cut taxes? What's the dollar cost? Slash spending? Does that include schools and prisons, or just the long-favored 'waste, fraud, and abuse'? How'd They Do? Better than many debates, but very much a recitation of their stump speeches. Some of the best new examples of specificity: Poizer calls for all legislation to be online for 72 hours so citizens can read it before legislative votes... he also calls for creating a new "chief innovation officer" to streamline regulations for business... Whitman promises to grade every K-12 school from A to F, so parents know what kind of education they're kids are getting... and Whitman seems to advocate more spending on higher education sooner than Poizner, though both cite the state;s budget woes when it comes to what can be afforded.
The Anti-Arnold: The convention that just ended offered a healthy dose of sneers about the big no-show, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. And so expect some jockeying tonight about who is, and isn't, prepared to govern differently. It may be particularly interesting to see who takes the most direct shot at Schwarzenegger, and what that shot is. How'd They Do? Relatively muted except for the big Schwarzenegger legacy issue: AB 32, the state law limiting greenhouse gas emissions. Whitman calls for a one-year suspension, Poizner calls the law "draconian" and says he supports the proposed initiative to suspend AB 32 until unemployment drops.
Game Changer? And finally, does anything happen here... in substance or style... that alters the narrative up to this point? Does the debate add something new to the campaign and provide voters an important glimpse into the candidate and what kind of governor he or she would be? Or is the debate a blip on the radar that's forgotten by next week? How'd They Do? How'd They Do? At first blush, no big game changers tonight. Both candidates spoke to reporters afterwards and said they thought the debate had gone well (and they always do), so we'll see how they handle the reviews from pundits in the next few days.