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AG Debate: Stand Together or Die Together

by: Kenton Ngo

Thu Oct 08, 2009 at 11:32:13 AM EDT

Click photos to embiggen.

Prince William Committee of 100 Attorney General Debate

A house divided against itself cannot stand--but it stands well enough if no one on the outside notices. Behind the scenes cracks in the Republican coalition contrasted at last night's Attorney General debate contrasted with increasingly public cracks in the Democratic coalition.

With less than a month to go until Election Day, it's no surprise that both Steve Shannon and Ken Cuccinelli went on the attack in their opening statements and never looked back. A crowd of 250 nearly evenly split partisans sat in a silence that began to unravel in the waning phases of the debate, with both sides blatantly ignoring the applause ban by the final questions.

A substantial part of the pro-Cuccinelli crowd were clad in yellow "Don't Tread on Me" flags, in a marriage of necessity between the vestiges of the libertarian-leaning Ron Paul movement, and social conservatives who have always formed Cuccinelli's base.

Meanwhile, a substantial part of the pro-Shannon crowd wore bright orange Laborers t-shirts, and became instant targets for the an anti-union barrage from Cuccinelli, who lambasted Shannon for his 100% rating from the AFL-CIO, and boasted of his 0% rating.

Virginia political observers might have noticed some behind-the-scenes fault lines between the business conservatives that formed the typical Republican base, the social conservatives who propelled the likes of Cuccinelli, and Del. Bob Marshall, and the libertarians clutching their Ron Paul bedsheets. Democrats watched with glee as RPV infighting provided months of endless entertainment during primary season.

But primary season is over.

While Cuccinelli mentioned his ticketmates several times, during the debate-long pissing contest over who has the most endorsements, Steve Shannon happily touted Northern Virginia business groups and other organizations that had endorsed Bob McDonnell and Steve Shannon (nary a word could be heard about Jody Wagner), leading a bemused Cuccinelli to wonder why Shannon "threw his runningmates under the bus."

Kenton Ngo :: AG Debate: Stand Together or Die Together
Even Cuccinelli's handling of the Phil Hamilton affair was telling. His committment to Reagan's 11th Commandment ("Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican") extended so far that he criticized Shannon for even commenting on the case.

This played quite well in the room, and in the game of gotcha, Cuccinelli parried well. But debates are not aimed at the audience there.

Prince William Committee of 100 Attorney General DebateDebate for debate's sake, and debate for the camera's sake are two separate skills. Ken Cuccinelli is an extremely skilled debater, and might have won on the flow, but voters at home aren't flowing the debate looking for drops and link turns. They read about the debate the next morning, and are not as impressed with clever debate tactics as I am (and since you're reading a Virginia political blog, you would be also). Cuccinelli's approach to debate was best shown in the one-question cross-examination portion, where each candidate is allowed to ask one question of his choice of his opponent.

Prince William Committee of 100 Attorney General DebateRather than press on issues, Cuccinelli asked Shannon how many divisions there were in the Attorney General's office. Shannon dodged, and practiced the time-honored tactic of answering the question you want to answer instead of the one posed by going straight to his child pornography talking point. Cuccinelli supporters whooped and hollered.

But winning a debate on a smart-ass know it all question like that is a lot like winning a high school/college policy debate on A-Spec: a hollow, hollow victory. Unlike competitive debate, you don't win your trophies at the end of the day based solely on the judge's ballot, you have millions of voter ballots to contend with--and they see those questions differently.

I was immediately reminded of 2006, when Jim Webb had the same opportunity to ask then-Senator George Allen a question during a debate, and asked Allen about the Senkaku Islands, a chain of small islands disputed between Taiwan, Japan, and China. Unsurprisingly, Allen was stumped. Insiders might have giggled, but Webb came off looking juvenile and smarter than you--two qualities that the average voter does not appreciate.

Even though Steve Shannon dodged and weaved around several questions by returning repeatedly to his talking points--protecting children with Amber Alerts and stopping child pornography, and his prosecutorial experience--in the third, fourth, and fifth-hand accounts that most voters will receive of the debate in newspapers and campaign mailers, they won't remember what the question was or whether the answer was relevant. They'll only remember the answer.

Ken Cucinelli might've won on the flow, and Shannon might've stuck on message better. But if that message is "Vote for me!" without an appeal for his ticketmates, it speaks volumes about himself, and Creigh Deeds. Steve Shannon and his ticketmates must ask themselves: stand together, or die together?

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