California Screaming

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“Ladies and gentlemen, this is not Comedy Central. I swear.” Well, moderator Stan Statham got that much right: the California gubernatorial debate didn’t give us a lot to laugh about. But did it give us anything to think about?

The much-hyped five-way debate was good value for fight fans, and the one-liners and run-ins hogged the post-event headlines. But there was some engagement on substance; you just had to pay attention and not get distracted by the brawling. Says the San Jose Mercury News, the evening offered “a freewheeling forum … that swung between near chaos and wonkish debate.”

The five candidates each had something to say about immigration, the economy, and taxes. Of course, in part that’s because they got an advance peek at the 12 questions asked. According to the Los Angeles Times, the five drew familiar political lines, “as each trotted out their campaign platforms and spread themselves along the ideological spectrum.” (Question: why would you expect them to say anything new, at this stage?)

Daniel Weintraub, blogger and columnist for The Sacramento Bee, highlights the benefits of the pedestrian approach:

“Almost nothing they said was new to the reporters covering the campaign or the political junkies who have followed it. But all of them probably succeeded in defining themselves the way they hoped to appear to viewers tuning in to the campaign for the first time.

In the end, the debate probably didn’t change much in the race. Nobody did well enough to take control or poorly enough to disqualify themselves.”

What, then, did the recall debate accomplish? Well, we now know that Schwarzenegger can act (not a given) and that Huffington is going down fighting. We had it confirmed that Bustamante is … ordinary, that McClintock is movement conservative on top of the issues, and that Camejo is capable, articulate, and doesn’t stand a chance.

And who came out on top? Schwarzenegger fared well enough for Bill Simon to endorse him, undeterred by the actor’s crass (or was that sexist?) treatment of Huffington. The San Diego Union-Tribune quotes a political analyst noting that A.S.’s shaky hold on the issues didn’t hurt him:

“‘He clearly didn’t show the same grasp of issues as McClintock. But he wasn’t thrown off his game, either. He knew the issues and he maintained his composure. So I think he did what he had to do.”

Weintraub thinks Schwarzenegger’s “adequate performance will probably increase pressure on McClintock to drop out or at least turn his fire away from his fellow republican.” Likewise, Slate’s Mickey Kaus gives Schwarzenegger a passing grade: “Not too bullying or too vague … but it was close! Did well enough to win.”

London’s Independent drew pretty much the opposite conclusion about A.S:

“It didn’t kill him, but it probably did him few favours. For 90 minutes, the action star was jumped on, savaged, patronised and, for long stretches, simply ignored. He may not have been demolished but the challenge proved a lot harder than the muscle-flexing competitions of his youth. …

[Schwarzenegger] sounded shallow and over-rehearsed, like a new kid on the block trying a touch too hard to impress the big boys. The proceedings may actually have helped Governor Davis defeat the recall altogether and keep his job.”

(But it’s not a British thing; London’s Daily Telegraph praised the Terminator’s “polished performance.” Go figure.)

But the socially conservative McClintock, who some right pundits are calling the Ross Perot of this race, isn’t exactly lagging in the polls. According to The Christian Science Monitor, after the debate, he’s going strong:

“Once a mere asterisk in the confused calculus of California’s 135-candidate recall election, Mr. McClintock has gradually emerged as the strong, third-place vote getter in polls — rising (at 14-to-18 points) while the two leaders — fellow Republican Schwarzenegger (26 points) and Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante (28 points) — tread water.”

And, says Kaus, McClintock was by far the most substantive candidate: “Solid presentation could make him national figure. (Gee, why do you think he stayed in the race?) The only candidate who even tried to fully answer the immigration question.”

As for Bustamante, he’s not exactly catching fire, as the Christian Science Monitor reports:

“Core Democrats have so far not been inspired by Lt. Governor Bustamante, and a court decision this week sharpened attention on his improper use of campaign cash. For all replacement candidates, Wednesday’s debate surely marked the start of a pivotal moment. For Bustamante, it is a final opportunity to mobilize a skeptical base and cement his lead.

‘I don’t think any of the candidates have wowed the voters,’ says Larry Gerston, a political scientist at San Jose State University. ‘And if you look at Bustamante now versus where he was six weeks ago, he’s treading water — his message has not resonated.'”

And of course, Bustamante has got to be cursing Huffington — as Schwarzenegger is McClintock — for nabbing a good portion of his natural votes.

So, was the debate useful to voters as an informational forum? Or to America’s children as a civics lesson? Nope. But, by the standards of tele-politics, it didn’t completely flunk. Kaus says it best:

“Alternative Universe Award to: CNN’s Tucker Carlson: He says he’s ashamed to be from the state that produced this amateurish circus. Hello? Which debate did he watch? And what dignified, subtly nuanced show does Carlson host? Oh, yeah … Crossfire.”


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