Claire McCaskill speaks in campaign soundbites
It's impossible to know how important the Meet the Press debates are for the elections, but Democratic candidates have certainly not used them to advantage. Virginia's Jim Webb gave a disastrous performance on September 17 when he became mired in a discussion about sexist comments he had published. Maybe it didn't hurt him, but it certainly didn't help, as his poll numbers continue to hover outside the range that would pose a serious threat to incumbent Senator Allen.
Claire McCaskill is locked in a much closer battle with incumbent Senator Jim Talent in the bellwether state of Missouri, the all-important race that will determine where the Senate balance of power falls for the next two years. Her performance yesterday was certainly not what one might have hoped. Our critique follows:
Style: McCaskill began well, projecting a warm, relaxed, almost folksy image that would appeal to any voter, but became increasingly tense and nervous as the debate wore on. Talent projected the image of a technocrat, sure of his facts, but not particularly affable. His demeanor was relaxed and unflappable throughout the debate. Advantage to Talent.
Time: Talent controlled the time, without appearing to hog it. We did check that, because it appeared to us he spoke far more than McCaskill did, and these are the numbers: Talent used 58% of the time while McCaskill used only 42%. McCaskill frequently gave one word answers ("yes," "no," "certainly"), like a beaming school child who knows the right answer, when she could have elaborated, however briefly.
Substance: Again, it was Talent who controlled the facts, while McCaskill often spoke in disjointed campaign soundbites. She did the best she could in defending an earlier remark that, "George Bush let people die on rooftops in New Orleans because they were poor and because they were black." She became mired in a discussion of her own, personal plan for Iraq that was far too specific and she seemed generally to have a poor grasp of foreign policy. We could all have lived without this comment on Bill Clinton: "I think he's been a great leader, but I don't want my daughter near him." It was tasteless and bound to provoke disagreement from everyone, one way or the other. Compare that to Talent's comment on Bush, "Certainly, he's going to end up better than Jimmy Carter, probably not as good as Ronald Reagan." Properly nuanced, plenty of wiggle room and offensive to hardly anyone. McCaskill did not capitalize on the stem cell issue, her greatest strength, on which she should have spoken at length. Instead, she took the bait as Talent goaded her into a discussion of partial birth abortions. What is surprising is that, after so many years of abject Republican failure on everything from Iraq to Katrina to the invasion of Americans' personal privacy to its rejection of science, Democrats can not find a clear, simple message and express it forcefully. Anyway, the debate goes to Talent.
Maybe the stem cell issue can carry the election for McCaskill or perhaps the Foley thing will tip the scales in Missouri, but it would have been very nice to see a convincing debate performance, too. Is it possible the Democratic party has no debate coaches to polish candidates for these appearances? Why spend millions of dollars on ads if you're going to blow millions of dollars worth of time that's offered, at no charge, by a national network? Thank goodness the only Meet the Press debates remaining are Minnesota and Maryland, not New Jersey and Tennessee.
MSNBC video of the debate here.