There’s always this debate about political debates.
How effective are they in allowing voters to assess candidates? Do they substantially affect a race’s outcome?
Then there’s that other question: Who won?
Presidential debates always have grabbed the most eyeballs.
In South Carolina and Florida, about two-thirds of voters claimed that televised debates influenced their decision in recent Republican presidential primaries. It’s an interesting claim in light of the fact that, in 2008, the most widely watched political debate, one between Barack Obama and John McCain, drew 62 million viewers, a number that amounted to fewer than half of the 131 million voters who cast ballots in the race.
Gubernatorial debates draw in much smaller slices of voters.
Nonetheless, candidates see the events as a means of gaining some free exposure to voters and as an opportunity to separate themselves from the opposition.
After three nights of televised debates broadcast across North Carolina, the three best-known Democratic candidates for governor – Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton, former U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge and N.C. Rep. Bill Faison – accomplished some of the former. It’s unclear whether any accomplished the latter.
All in all, the debates were pretty tame affairs.
Faison, an Orange County trial lawyer known for his feistiness, was – not shockingly – the most feisty. He accused Etheridge of running for one of his old jobs, state schools superintendent, rather than governor, and threw in a barb about the high unemployment rate in Dalton’s home county, Rutherford.
But a barb here or there mostly gave way to calmer talk of his proposal to create jobs by providing tax credits to small businesses. Faison repeatedly returned to the issue of job creation and attempted to contrast his focus with that of Dalton and Etheridge, who more often spoke about jobs in the context of educational opportunity.
Etheridge’s big push came on higher education, with a message that should resonate with middle-class parents: Tuition is too high, and the debt that college students accumulate limits job decisions.
“That has to change, and the state has to meet (its) obligation,” he said.
Dalton continually touted his work to connect high school, colleges and industry so that students can lower educational costs and track into career paths. He wanted viewers to know about his role, as lieutenant governor and legislator, in helping create an early college program that has enjoyed success around the state.
Those were the pitches.
None of the three came off flat in delivering them.
In that regard and others, though, Etheridge may have come out ahead. Early polls already suggested that he might enjoy a lead. Unlike Dalton and Faison, he’d also been mostly out of the public spotlight since his congressional defeat in 2010.
The debates served as a reminder how poised and statesman-like he can be, at least when not confronted on the street by camera-toting political operatives.
If Etheridge leads, the debates didn’t hurt, and his two main primary opponents have but a short time to catch up.