Two somewhat stiff combatants appeared on the brightly lit stage of La Politica last night with undefeated heavyweight Heather Wilson retaining the debating title, but scoring a draw on the question of whether she will keep her ABQ congressional seat for another two year term. Her Democratic rival, Patricia Madrid, agreed to only one TV debate; a strategy derided by Wilson, but vindicated as the congresswoman brimmed with experience and verbal agility that kept Madrid fastened in for a sometimes bumpy ride.
But Heather has had her own problems this campaign and they were underscored by the first half hour of the hour long confrontation; just about all of it was consumed by the unpopular war in Iraq and sidebar issues of national security. She parried back and forth with Madrid, toughening her rhetoric--Madrid is for "surrender" and "immediate withdrawal"--as she moved to enthuse her Republican base and peel off conservative Democrats and independents her campaign now sees as crucial to a narrow victory.
Madrid hammered the key lines that have put her atop the latest poll by three points and even further ahead in others.
"It's a no-exit war." "Stay the course is no strategy." "You can't change Washington until you change the people you send to Washington."
Wilson did her best to reframe the race, repeatedly going back to the immediate withdrawal charge, a position Madrid denied having and one that even the largely anti-war electorate has distaste for. But that first half hour was a wash with both contenders doing well in nailing down their base votes. It was in the second half that Heather managed to turn up the heat, with the help of a couple of flubs from Patsy.
PRIMETIME POWER FIGHT
Plowing some new territory with just two weeks before Election Day and heavy early voting already underway, Wilson played her ace, asking Madrid how the "90,000" residents she said depend directly or indirectly on the military and government establishment--Kirtland Air Force Base and Sandia National Labs--could trust her.
"You said you want to reduce defense spending...you have no experience in the military," slammed Air Force veteran Wilson. Why, she asked, should someone dependent on those federal installations vote for you?
Madrid failed to counter the punch that she is for reducing the defense budget, only jabbing back that she expects the Democrats to take over the Congress November 7th and that they "care for people."
Score one for Heather. She finally personalized and localized the campaign to an important segment of voters who have been fixated on the everything-gone-wrong-war. We called in the political artillery in the form of war-weary and battled scarred political consultant and Democratic pollster Harry Pavlides.
"Heather is now working for a narrow victory--getting her base Republican vote excited and to the polls and using another base--Kirtland--to go after select conservative Democrats and independents.
"I believe the bet she is making is that the Democrats talk a good game about turnout, but in the end they won't show up in force. If they do, she is gone. If they don't, the tough talk on Iraq and the appeal on the local economy could be the path to a narrow victory," summarized Pavlides.
We asked for and received more from Republican, former Capitol Hill heavy and current defense lobbyist Bruce Donisthorpe.
"I wouldn't be surprised to see Patsy try to clarify her position in the days ahead," analyzed Donisthorpe who said Madrid "left a big issue on the table" by not talking up the defense budget.
THEN PATSY SCORES
What Patsy did not leave on the table was Iraq. She was forceful, persuasive and well-informed. Her passion was evident and it was beneficial to her that the most watched part of the debate was on the topic that got her into the party in the first place.
While the blood spattered on Madrid's elegant black dress accented with a pearl necklace when Heather nailed her on Kirtland, Patsy returned the favor and had Heather bleeding some of the red stuff on her fine lavender top with black striped collar when she pressed her to give an opinion on whether she thought Bush was "a good president."
Heather danced and danced around that one, trotting out the old "independence" argument, but it was a clear score for the diminutive Madrid who reveled in her opponents response from behind her podium at the UNM Continuing Education Center.FINAL JAB LANDS
The debate progressed from there with a myriad of questions--health care, education and Social Security--but blood oozed again near the end of the second half hour when mild-mannered anchorwoman Carla Aragon dropped a seemingly innocuous question on the order of: "What are the ethical implications of a politician accepting money from lobbyists and special interest groups and what do they get for that money?
"It is only to give them access," fumbled Madrid as Heather went off to the races.
"I am amazed at what I just heard...Mrs. Madrid accepted $125,000 from a casino owner in southern New Mexico who has business pending in her office. No one buys access to my office," emoted Heather as catcalls decorated the airwaves from some of the 200 partisans invited to attend the event.
Heather has already worked this issue over with a ton of TV ads, but Madrid's phrasing opened the door to renewed ethics questions, even if it is doubtful they will work any better than they already have. (FYI: I do PR work for Sunland Park Racetrack whose owner Wilson referred to.)
Earlier in the debate, Madrid questioned just who gets access to Wilson's office, saying a mother of an Iraq soldier who wants to question Wilson on whether soldiers are getting proper body armor has been repeatedly denied access. Heather replied to the woman, who was in the audience, to contact her again.ANALYSIS & PERSPECTIVE
I will go with what Pavlides, Donisthorpe and my anonymous Alligators came with--there was no fundamental reframing of the race last night, but Wilson did carve out a few areas that could keep Madrid from maintaining her slow, but steady momentum and begin a comeback.
She scored points on Madrid that were important, but did not remove the Iraq-Bush monkey from her back, the key driver of this race and just about all the others in the nation. Madrid is the symbol of the electorate's discontent. She waved that banner firmly and did not back down. Without the war as a backdrop, Heather may have been able to put her away, but if the war remains dominant and drives the turnout Democrats promise, she will remain positioned for a narrow win.
Neither Wilson nor Madrid seemed at their best in terms of poise. Wilson often over-emoted, was stiff and unsmiling and showed hardly an ounce of humor. She did nothing to shake her icy image. Madrid often appeared as if she was prosecuting a case, referring to notes and memorized lines. The warm smile she has sported on the campaign trail was nowhere in sight and, like Heather, she did not bring her humor bag to the show. However, she did get off the one genuinely funny line when she remarked about one of Heather's commercials: "I was surprised that Heather thought that I wanted to bomb Denver," quipped Madrid to the relief of Mr. & Mrs. New Mexico who are desperate to laugh at anything in this most negative of campaigns.TV REVIEWJoles & Aragon
KOB-TV has a solid record doing debates and the pressure was on them last night as this was the one and only in one of the hottest races in the country and one which could determine which party controls the U.S. House. They did well.
At the beginning they played for each candidate an attack ad from their opponent and had each respond to the charges. It was good television and kept the audience interested. Anchors Carla Aragon and Tom Joles did what they do best. They fired off the questions, kept the clock and stayed out of the line of fire, giving the candidates all the crucial air time and foregoing any annoying and unnecessary promotion of themselves or the station.
The direction, sometimes problematic with a live remote broadcast, was also on the mark, giving us cutaway shots of the candidates at just the right moments. Unfortunately for the candidates, the shots showed them to be nervous as cats on a hot tin roof.
The questions were not good, they were excellent, coming from the viewers and the station and covering almost every conceivable topic. You would need two debates to do them justice, but under the circumstances KOB-TV served the state well by making the candidates cover as much ground as possible.BOTTOM LINES
Surprise! I received a bunch of email following the debate, with most R's claiming Heather knocked Patsy to the canvas. Most D's admitted that Heather won on presentation, but argued Madrid carried the day because of her firm stand on Iraq and Bush. What did you think? Drop me an email form the top of the page and I will run some of the best responses Thursday.
(c)NM POLITICS WITH JOE MONAHAN 2006
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