|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.
Debate 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.
Rather 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?