I bet Steve Poizner thought he was going to have a George Bush moment.
You might remember in one of the 2000 presidential debates, Bush was in the middle of answering a question when Al Gore suddenly walked over into Dubya's personal space and Bush, though caught a bit off guard, kept on message.
Maybe it was just me who instantly thought of that event during last night's debate in San Jose, when Meg Whitman got up off of her chair and approached Poizner's chair while he was standing and speaking. He quickly glanced at her (what are you doing, Meg?), only to find her... well... picking up the pitcher of water on his table and taking it over to hers to refill her glass.
Conflict avoided, thus leaving plenty of time for all sorts of other conflict which I, as the moderator for the debate, got to see up close.
Debates always seem a bit easier to understand after the dust settles a bit, especially since the early examination is usually only about who won or who lost. In this case, a little distance actually helps me, too; standing on stage with the candidates does not give the best perspective to assess what's really happening.
So after a little sleep (too little, sadly), some points worth pondering:
Animated or Angry? Steve Poizner had the easier job of the two last night, and my hunch is he actually enjoyed the debate. The insurance commish frankly had less to lose in the head-to-head clash, while the frontrunner Whitman had to much more carefully walk the proverbial tightrope. Up close, Poizner came off as very energized, and seemed relaxed when not speaking. Whitman certainly didn't seem nervous, but was cautious; what the audience didn't see -- and I did -- was that several times Whitman didn't use all of her alloted two minutes for an answer... a sign, it seemed, that her mission in the debate was to minimize the chances of a screw-up.
Careful Whitman, Part II: More evidence of how Meg Whitman is trying very hard to avoid any messy issues... her answer on the climate change question, which was asked the way it was because the position of both candidates is already well known on Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's legacy law, AB 32 (they both want to suspend it). When pressed by me on whether climate change is being caused, all or in part, by humans, Whitman said, "I'm not a scientist." She may be a rookie politician, but that's a true politician's answer; it probably placates anti-climate change conservatives while also probably allowing her the freedom to offer a slightly broader assessment of climate change ("I'm not a scientist but...") in a general election.
Main Street, Not Wall Street: That's almost a direct quote from Whitman in last night's debate (a planned line, no doubt) as she waded through the one issue that has united both her Republican rival and her Democratic foes -- her ties to the unpopular world of Goldman Sachs. Whitman's 'Goldman Problem' actually predates the economic meltdown accusations leveled at the Wall Street titan (though not in some ways, as explained in a moment). And with the company dominating the national narrative about financial industry reform, Whitman's going to keep having to defend herself in interviews and in TV ads on the issue of 'spinning.' Last night's question was another one of those moments where, as the moderator, I wanted to make sure she actually answered the question from journalist Carla Marinucci, which was... did you do anything wrong? "I did not do anything wrong," she said when I pressed the point at the end of her answer.
On the tie between the current Goldman controversy and Whitman... the candidate was asked after the debate about Poizner's latest ad.
On the first issue... whether some of her investments paid off as the fortunes of Americans sagged, Whitman said the following (click below for audio)
The bad news for Team Whitman: this issue isn't going away anytime soon. If it was just the candidate and her own history with Wall Street, that would be more easily isolated. But the national headlines about banking shenanigans -- and Goldman Sachs in particular -- are going to keep coming, especially as Democrats nationally seem intent on wringing every bit of political juice out of this possible for the 2010 midterm election cycle. And because Whitman does have a past with the company in the crosshairs... she's going to have plenty of time to explain her side of the story.
The Pesky Moderator: And finally, an explanation about why I kept messing up all those carefully crafted candidate comments. While the format didn't include follow-up questions from the journalist panel, everyone did agree that I could ask for a "clarification" if needed. And I decided to use a pretty broad definition of that power, especially when a candidate was asked a specific question. Talk to anyone who watches debates, either as a voter or a journalist, and you seem to find folks who wonder why candidates don't answer the question. Last night, there were several questions -- gun control, climate change, Goldman Sachs, health care -- where the candidate(s) talked about the question, but didn't directly answer the question. Hence all those requests to answer it.
At the end, the broadcast producer told me (via an earpiece) that there would be time for one quick, simple question from me. And so that question, as a Capitol reporter who spends an awful lot of time on the budget, was about budget-related initiatives approved by the voters -- should any of those measures be re-examined, given the state's dismal deficit? Both candidates chose to talk about the need for reform (in Poizner's case, the need for even more budget-related initiatives), but on first blush neither had one they'd re-examine; Poizner later voiced support for scrapping the millionaire's tax, Proposition 63, that funds mental health programs.
Granted, it could be a tough question to answer off the top of your head... but these two politicians want to be governor and, should they win, will be taking office in the middle of a large discussion about the crisis in governance. As such, it's worth wondering whether they think the current laws need to be re-examined, or whether the state's problems are more about leadership. For now, Steve Poizner and Meg Whitman seemed focused on the latter.