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Perry as debater

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All the papers are running stories today about the upcoming Republican debate at the Reagan Library, which will be Perry’s first test. What kind of a debater is he? He was involved in debates against Tony Sanchez in 2002, against Chris Bell, Carole Strayhorn, and Kinky Friedman in 2006, and Kay Bailey Hutchison and Debra Medina in 2010. He refused to debate Bill White in 2010. I was on the panel in 2002. The Trans-Texas corridor had not yet become controversial. I asked, shouldn’t we be focusing on the cities, not on new rural highways? The congestion is in the cities. Sanchez agreed. Perry didn’t. In general, it was an uninspired debate, and I have very little recollection of it. Here is the late Molly Ivins’ report on the 2006 debate:

I sacrificed an hour Friday evening to watch the Texas gubernatorial debate on your behalf, since I knew none of you would do it. Democrat Chris Bell looked and sounded like the only candidate who won’t embarrass the state — he was intelligent, well informed and even funny. But the question remains: Can Texas afford to lose that hair?

The Coiffure was in his usual form. As one opponent after another attacked his record, Gov. Rick Perry stood there proudly behind that 35 percent voter support he has so richly earned and simply disagreed. The Coiffure seemed to consider blanket denials a fully sufficient and adequate response.

At one point, the debate actually became more interesting, as a panel of reporters with Belo Corp. changed formats. Doing a quick pop quiz, they asked independent candidate Carole Keeton Strayhorn who won the election in Mexico. She informed us the winner had won by a narrow margin, and she is ready to work with him. They asked Goodhair the interest rate on a home mortgage. He said 5.9 percent, and it is 6.4 percent (I don’t think I would have known that, either). Independent candidate Kinky Friedman didn’t even try to guess the average cost of a year’s tuition at the University of Texas ($7,630). They asked Bell when the battle of the Alamo was fought. He correctly answered 1836.

One overall impression: It seems to me both Strayhorn and Friedman damaged themselves. Lots of people are voting for Kinky for the fun of it, but the thin-skinned Texas Jew reacted badly to questions about his recent racist remarks. He first became defensive and then petulant — sort of, if you can’t take a joke, to hell with you. The politically incorrect humor didn’t work because it wasn’t funny … in fact, it was painfully bad. Strayhorn seemed over-prepped and over-amped. As Texas political guru Bob Armstrong said, she talked 40 mph, with gusts up to 70.

So that leaves us with two Protestant white guys again. Just FYI, the percentage of minority citizens working for the state government has gone down steadily since Ann Richards.

Rick Perry and Chris Bell: Compare and contrast.

Rick Perry has really good hair.

Chris Bell has everything else.

Obviously, you think my prejudices are showing here, but others who reported on the debate, while often taking shelter behind the “no major blows landed” dodge, rather clearly thought Bell had done best, even if Perry won on the politics of it by not actually saying anything totally idiotic.

According to the post-debate “fact check” article in the Dallas Morning News, Perry claimed he had pushed a tax bill through the Legislature “lowering property taxes by a record amount.” He didn’t mention that the bill is not a tax cut, it’s a tax-swap — it didn’t lower taxes, it just moved them over to business and smokers.

He also claimed teachers could get a $12,000 raise under his school plan. Actually, the pay raise for teachers is $2,000 across the board, with the stated recommendation to the school districts that they add merit pay raises between $3,000 and $10,000. That’s some mighty fancy slicing and dicing there.

Bell picked up a $1 million pledge that night from John O’Quinn, the Houston trial lawyer. The trial lawyers have almost blown a good shot here — all it takes is one more vote than 36 percent, there is no run-off, this is winner-take-all, sudden death. Polls show two out of three Texas voters ready to vote against Perry. The Democrats have a base vote around 40 percent. I think it would be a real tragedy to throw this one away, and you know what is tripping us up? We think we can’t win.

We’re in a real “why try, why work, why contribute?” spiral, believing our guy doesn’t have a chance. Nonsense. You couldn’t ask for an easier win.

The following is was my report on the 06 debate. There was some controversy about the date; it was held on a Friday night, when many Texans were attending high school football games, and therefore was perceived as being much to Perry’s advantage: If he made a gaffe, or one of his opponents performed well, few would see it. * * * * Rick Perry won the debate. A debate is not like a track event; the constestants do not share the same starting position. Perry went into the debate as the clear frontrunner and, while he took some punches, he did nothing that would lose votes. He had only one rough moment, and that was his response to an e-mail asking why the public had never been allowed to vote on the Trans-Texas Corridor. Perry answered that they had voted on a portion of the plan. That’s a stretch. They voted for a constitutional amendment creating a mobility fund, not on the gigantic plan for toll roads everywhere. His response to charges that he had taken large contributions from involved parties–that his campaign transactions were transparent–was true but not on point. That was the one moment in the debate when he looked off his game; his eyes were moving around, as if he was looking for the exit. Which, as it turned out, he was. His best moments were his criticism of Kinky Friedman’s racially tinged remarks (“Mr. Friedman, words matter”) and his defense of what Chris Bell called “high-stakes testing.” Perry upheld testing as essential to holding schools accountable; Bell later said that he didn’t oppose standardized tests but rather that so much time was spent on them because so much was riding on how students performed. My scorecard had Bell in second place. He took an oddball question about what are the term limits for Texas governors and hit a home run: “There is no term limt for Texas governors. That’s why we should be horrified. Now Rick Perry is saying he might run again. That’s reason enough not to vote for him.” One of the questions to Bell was, Why are you so sedate? People say you’re boring. Unfortunately, it’s true, Bell speaks in a deep monotone with a nasal inflection, and it is soporific. He had some spark on the term limits question, but for the most part he comes across as pedantic. He did make a point in the post-session media availability of introducing Houston trial lawyer John O’Quinn, who has become a financial backer of Bell. A statewide media buy costs $1.3 million a week, and there are less than five weeks to go. O’Quinn wouldn’t miss $6.5 million, but whether he is prepared to produce it is another question. Carole Keeton Strayhorn needed a good performance, but she didn’t deliver one. True confession: I have seen a lot of these debates, either as a viewer or as a panelist, and I have developed some ideas about what a candidate should do and shouldn’t do, and I tend to judge performances against my own preconceptions. That said, I thought Strayhorn missed opportunity after opportunity. The format called for each candidate to ask a question of one other candidate, and Strayhorn was fortunate enough to draw Perry as her victim. She has been stalking him for three years, and now she had him in her sights, and what did she ask him? Why, after six years of his governorship, did Texas still not have a Jessica’s Law on sexual predators? It seemed to me and my preconceptions that this was a transparent and contrived effort to capitalize on the Mark Foley situation. I’m sure that many viewers favor strong child predator laws, as do I, but why blame Perry for this? He is identified with all sorts of controversial policies that she could have asked about, but she chose an issue that hasn’t been on the radar screen until the last week. Then she repeated her campaign themes with a relentlessness that became grating. A governor for all Texans…Texas first, not special interests first…I always challenge the status quo. So contrived. Kinky Friedman looked lost. He made erroneous assertions that finally drove panelist Wayne Slater of the Dallas Morning News to tick them off, one by one, and conclude by saying, “None of them are true.” He was on the defensive about his old racial jokes, and the best he could say was, “You can’t be afraid of offending people.” Like Strayhorn, he repeated his mantra–I am not a politician–ad nausem. Later, in his post-debate remarks to the media, his witty persona was back. “Right now, I’m still voting for myself,” he began. Asked why he changed his mind about building a wall on the border, he said, “Jesse Ventura convinced me I shouldn’t be for a wall because ten years from now we might want to be getting out of here.” Perry held serve, which is all he needed to do. Bell gave good answers and handled himself well. Strayhorn didn’t deliver in the clutch. Kinky clutched. And the earth did not stray from its orbit. The most significant thing that happened in the debate for the gubernatorial candidates did not happen during the debate. It happened afterward. The debate had taken place in a room with no audience except the panel. Reporters sat in a foyer at a building in the Belo/Dallas Morning News complex, where they could follow the proceedings on five large TV sets. When the debate was over, the various candidates trooped into the area where the media was located for ten minutes of Q and A: first Chris Bell, then Kinky, then Rick Perry . . . or at least that was the schedule. When his turn came, Perry was nowhere to be seen. Instead, a smirking aide showed up to claim victory and distribute a press handout that no one wanted. Shouts rang out from members of the media in attendance: “Where’s the governor?” “Where’s Governor Perry?” State Senator Tommy Williams, I regret to say, participated in this charade by standing behind the podium as if to answer questions (except the answer to “Where’s Governor Perry?”) Smirking aide announced, “The governor had his say in the debate. This entire campaign is a debate. He will be debating for the next thirty days with the people of Texas.” At least we got a plug: “He sat down and talked with the editor of Texas Monthly.” The relish with which the Perry folks acted out their disdain for the media was ugly and arrogant–and a character sketch of their candidate. Later, we learned he was already on his way back to Austin. The most significant and revealing of Perry’s debates was the first of two Republican primary debates in 2010 with Kay Bailey Hutchison and Debra Medina. Perry’s body language screamed, “I don’t want to be here.” He grimaced, he smirked, he shook his head while his opponents were talking. The women had clearly gotten under his skin. More significantly, Medina got to Perry’s right. Perry’s palpable dislike of his fellow debaters was dramatic. It was his worst performance of any debate. I thought at the time that Medina had him on the ropes; if she could raise $5 million, she had a chance to beat him in the primary. Hutchison never did. She never realized that Perry had radicalized the state Republican party, and her constituency was reduced to about 30% of the primary vote. These national debates are a lot easier that the 2010 primary debate was. (One difference is that the media is better.) There are multiple candidates, and if the format calls for every candidate to answer each question, he will have time to compose himself and have an answer ready. The danger for Perry is that the other candidates will be  more familiar with national issues than Perry is, but Perry has been involved in national issues as governor–EPA, border security, immigration, education–and in battles with the Obama administration. I would not rank Perry as a good debater, but he knows what he believes, and he can deliver a line. He just can’t let his adversaries get under his skin.

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