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Perry-Hutchison: The Debate That Wasn’t

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There was no shortage of embarassing and potentially damaging moments for both Gov. Rick Perry and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in last night’s Republican debate in Denton. They both evaded questions in the most obvious and klutzy of ways. They both prompted unintended gales of laughter from the audience at their own expense. And they both fell back awkwardly on irrelevant talking points throughout the spirited-but-insubstantial hour.

Together, the two leading Republicans managed to make Debra Medina, the little-known novice whose politics combine Ron Paul-style libertarianism with Pat Buchanan-style rabble-rousing, look like a relative intellectual giant, a genuine human being and a rhetorical whiz to boot. This was the signal achievement of Hutchison and Perry’s evening. The senator was so-so; the governor was stunningly awful. But the knockout punch Hutchison needed to land—or needed Perry to land on himself—never quite came.

The general drift of the campaign was probably not altered in any significant way. In the end, though he lost the debate to both his opponents, that counts in the bizarre calculus of electoral politics as something of a victory for Perry. Perry’s performance was mystifyingly horrendous. The governor constantly mugged for the cameras and reverted time and again to stale cliches about the greatness of Texas, demonstrating all the theatrical subtlety and skill of Urkel in the old sitcom Family Matters. If he spent five minutes preparing for the occasion, it didn’t show. And if he did practice, it was time ill-spent.

Hutchison probably did herself a bit of good, relative to Perry’s juvenile posturing and fumbled responses. Leaving aside a wretched few minutes when she clumsily refused to answer repeated questions about whether she supports overturning Roe v. Wade—if you missed it, you’ll surely see it in Perry campaign ads—the senator managed to come across, generally speaking, as fairly poised and reasonably lively. She showed considerably more vigor than her flaccid campaign had led anyone to expect. At the end of the hour, it seemed conceivable—though only just barely—that Hutchison could begin to gather some momentum and make the race as competitive and fierce as originally expected.

Medina’s performance could help Hutchison even more than she helped herself. The Ron Pauler stands, after this debate, to take a greater number of votes away from Perry from right-wingnuts in the GOP. While her inexperience in such settings often showed, Medina partly compensated for her lack of polish with a kind of homely dignity and sincerity that made Hutchison and Perry’s poll-tested evasions and practiced jibes even more obvious and appalling.

And Medina, unlike Hutchison, had a consistent message: “restoring true private property rights and gun ownership,” a phrase she repeated several times. Perry had a consistent message, too: Ain’t Texas great! Oh, and also: Ain’t Washington awful, and did you know senators like that one over there spend a lot of time in that town?

Everything that emerged from Perry’s mouth had the clanking ring of overfamiliarity. You could have predicted every answer he made—though you’d never have guessed how arduous the journey toward those answers would be. The calvalcade began with the very first question, when the candidates were asked whether there was a government program they like, and what programs they would move to “nullify.”

Was any sentient person in Texas surprised to hear Perry say that the one government program he likes is “Our United States military forces”? (The fact that our military forces are hardly “a program” certainly wasn’t going to stop him.)

Perry wasn’t going to let himself get tripped up by any questions about secession or nullification, either: No, sir. After declaring that the federal government should do just “three things: deliver our mail, stand military [??] and defend our borders,” he added, “I guess one out of three ain’t bad.” It was the sort of line that might go over big at a tea party. It landed with a plunk on this occasion. As did his evasive answer about what he might want to nullify: “Here’s the real issue: Health care is a great example of what people are talkin’ about on the nullification issue,” he said.

But then he said that talk about nullification was “a waste of time at this point,” and added, puzzlingly: “There is not a program that I know of from the nullification process. … We need to be working on these programs and stop them before we even get to the point of nullification.” At least this accomplished one thing: It made follow-up questions pointless.

How can you press a candidate on an answer that is pure, apparently self-contradicting, gobbledygook? If political debates were scored like high-school debates—rewarding actual, intelligible points made—Perry would have ended up a distant third. And even though style matters more than substance in a political debate, Perry still finished a distant third last night. Whether it will matter a hill of beans is doubtful.

To score big in a debate, a candidate has to either land a memorable punch—a la Lloyd Bentsen with his “I knew Jack Kennedy” chiding of Dan Quayle in 1988—or come up with something as charming, endearing and unforgettable as the aged Ronald Reagan’s “I am not going to exploit my opponent’s youth and inexperience” in 1984.

Nobody managed either kind of big hit last night. In a rational world, Rick Perry’s jaw-droppingly lousy performance would have set back his re-election chances in a serious way. But politics is not a rational world. And Texas voters, by and large, don’t tend to be logic-loving, debate-watching bunch.