Friday, August 20, 2010

First Debate: Martinez Throws Red Meat & Rallies Her Base, Denish Hits On Vouchers & Scores; No Love Lost Between These Two As Sparks Light Up Night 

The first debate
Susana Martinez got the indictment but not the conviction in the first gubernatorial debate of Campaign 2010. She threw enough red meat at Diane Denish to fill the freezers at Albertson's, but in the end Denish stole the lead and may have made more inroads than Martinez with the relatively small pool of undecided voters. Each candidate did comply with the First Commandment of Debates--make no irreparable gaffes.

(You can watch the entire debate here. Newspaper coverage here.)

Martinez, a veteran prosecutor, but new to the bright lights of statewide La Politica, started out with a case of the butterflies, but soon hit her stride. As the hour wore on her attacks on Denish escalated. She could have used a velvet hammer, but it was the meat axe that came out of the cabinet.

Denish sat calmly, taking her punishment like a nun saying penance. You wondered if it was intentional, as if to make Martinez appear ill-tempered.

But the lieutenant governor handed out plenty of her own slaps of the ruler, even if she did not take Martinez's bait. If she lost her composure--as seemed the goal of the Martinez camp--she would have made the night Susana's. Instead, slowly but surely, Denish began taking the most valuable territory of the evening--the battle of the public school budget.


Martinez, in a break with the Republican legislative leadership, has said she would not support any funding cuts for the public schools which take up well over 40% of the entire state budget. But Denish opened the debate questioning Martinez's support of controversial school vouchers and repeatedly returned to that theme, contending that Martinez has flipped her position on the vouchers which she warned would mean taking money from the public schools and giving it to "wealthy private schools."

Martinez fought back, arguing she is for tax credits, not traditional vouchers, which would drain money from the public schools. She said she is for tax credits for individuals and businesses that donate to private scholarship funds that would help low-income families. The plan, she asserted, would not include a traditional system, in which the state directly provides school-choice vouchers to parents.

She said her plan would avoid draining state education dollars from public schools while giving parents school choices.

Denish returned so often to what she called Martinez's support of vouchers that an exasperated Martinez finally exclaimed:

You can say it over and over again and it's not going to make it true.

But the Associated Press wrap up on the debate went right to the voucher issue and Martinez's backtracking. The money graphs:

Martinez defended her proposal, saying she supported tax credits for businesses and individuals that give private money for scholarships for students to attend the school of their choice...

However, during the primary election campaign, Martinez advocated a different proposal.

She told The Associated Press in May that she supported granting tax credits to families who send their children to private or religious schools.

Martinez scolded Denish for describing her private scholarship program as a voucher.

"You can say it over and over again and it's not going to make it true, said Martinez. "It's not going to make it true..."

Denish also invited the audience to tune in to YouTube to see a video of Martinez shot during the primary in which she supports vouchers.

One of the unsuccessful GOP Guv candidates told me Thursday that Martinez explicitly advocated traditional public school vouchers in joint primary campaign appearances. Also, a former aide to Guv candidate Janice Arnold-Jones also told us that he was present when Martinez supported traditional school vouchers.

For the Denish camp the controversy is a proxy for Martinez's trustworthiness. They probably feel pretty good about how their strategy played out last night. Now they have to wait to see if it's penetrating the consciousness of those critical swing voters.

If those voters turn out to be more like Republicans--downright angry at the state of the state--Denish has little hope.


Martinez's performance Thursday night had particular appeal to her base. She turned herself into full-throated vessel for the anger and frustration we see much of in this year's political climate.

The Dona Ana County district attorney glared at Denish, calling her a failure to her face and reciting her now familiar anti-Denish orthodoxy of bloated state government and a 49th ranking in public education performance.

She even taunted Denish over her use of the state jet, wondering if money spent on jet rides could not have been used to fund remedial education programs.

Talk about red meat! They were doing the two-step in Little Texas when they heard that one.

Again, Denish took it all in, knowing that any outburst of emotion on her part and the debate would tip to Susana. She held on tight, letting Martinez send her base voters into ecstasy.

However, following Susana's nice score on the jet, Di came with the evening's best segue, saying, "about those vouchers..."

It was one of the few times the invited audience of 400 had reason to chuckle.

Martinez seemed prepped to fight the final battle of a war, but Denish, running behind in the polls, held back. She is going to take this one battle at a time.

Both camps professed themselves satisifed. Martinez's sympathizers praised the aggressive Martinez for "wiping the floor" with Denish, contending that the Dona Ana DA captured today's zeitgeist while Denish looked like a political relic.

But a Denish operative framed it this way:

Martinez played it more like it was a live TV debate--zingers and hyberbole--but this wasn't a live TV debate. It was about winning the narrative for the nightly news and Denish understood that. Denish identified a clear contrast (vouchers) that worked in her benefit and she pounded over and over--reporters couldn't miss it.


Former Republican State Representative and ABQ City Councilor Greg Payne, one of our analysts for this cycle, waxed poetic over "the passion" of Martinez, saying it matches the political climate. But he warned that she seemed at times "too hot" to handle and will have to pull the reins in on herself.

Denish came across as a patient high school counselor. She probably needs to step up the passion, Martinez was like the angry parent berating the incompetent teacher. She needs to ensure that the passion doesn't get too personal.

Indeed. Martinez's anger could make her less likable, a key factor for many voters. Denish's passion gap could make her recede in voter's minds.

Speaking of passion, at the end of the debate Martinez again glowered defiantly at Denish and told her she was a wretched failure and deserved a "pink slip."

And how was your day?


The candidates were seated during their debate. That probably helped Susana who is short in stature and who was given to nervous podium-hugging in her TV debate in the May GOP Guv primary....

ABQ Public Schools Superintendent Winston Brooks, the debate moderator, handled the combatants well, keeping them on the clock. The questions he compiled from the public and educators were solid. Denish and Martinez seemed to like him. That's good because if he screwed up, he'd be losing even more sleep over the APS budget than he already has...

Martinez unveield a new TV spot a couple of hours before the debate. It was on..guess what? Education.

Brooks even cracked a few jokes near the end. If he hadn't, we might not see what Martinez and Denish look like when they smile. Talk about serious. Can you lighten up a bit, ladies? The economy already has made too many folks sour pusses...

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