Monday, October 25, 2004

So what did you think of the debate? 

If you're from St. Cloud, chances are the candidates you saw debating on KMSP last night are known quantities. I have met Kennedy a few times, and while I am not personally familiar with Wetterling I have seen her speak a couple of times over the last year. What I saw were the two people I know.

Jo's Attic notes that "speaking is not his thing" regarding Kennedy. We know that up here. If you had known Kennedy four years ago when he first ran for Congress, you would have noted that he sounds remarkably improved. Mark Kennedy four years ago probably would have been better off not appearing on television at all. I don't know if it's a speech impediment he had, but whatever it was you can barely notice it now. His closing statement was great; Kennedy has managed to practice well several talks he can give at the drop of a hat. But I've also sat in on Q&As with him, and he sounded there like he sounded last night. I have truly wondered if he can do this in a statewide race for the Senate against Dayton: Can he get up and give Dayton the dickens in a debate and win that election? Given the strides he's made up to now, I think it's possible, but what you saw last night was about as good as I think Mark Kennedy can be at least for now. Against Dayton, I think he'd be fine. Against someone with more spit-and-polish, he may suffer for the comparison. (I would demand someone identify for me who that someone else would be before starting any dismissal of Kennedy's possible Senate candidacy.)

As to Wetterling, she's been in front of cameras for years for her foundation. She didn't look at all rattled (certainly not like this poor lady did), and she stayed within her talking points pretty well. But when specific policies came up -- and I thought the questioners did a fine job -- she was at a loss. Kennedy is much better on specifics, and in a town-hall debate setting he would eat her lunch, as he did at FarmFest in August. But with two reporters and someone from the League of Women Voters covering more general areas, she was bound to appear better.

Still, Kennedy softened her up with shots on her tax cut rollback ("reducing tax benefits is the same as a tax increase" and "I won't raise taxes".) She's got a way to finesse the "fight 'em over here" comment to make Kennedy sound softer on terrorism than she does. She actually manages to sound to the right of Kerry on the GWOT, which says more about Kerry than her. I thought her closing statement was poorer than Kennedy's but that on debating points she did as well as Kennedy.

Given the poll results I posted earlier today, this probably doesn't matter much. I would be very surprised if Wetterling gets within ten points of Kennedy next week. But I think she's gotten enough exposure that her next run -- probably a state Senate seat -- will have a good chance of success. I more wonder if this is what she really wants to do with her life.

Meanwhile, has the campaign burnished Kennedy for a move-up run for the Senate? I think that's the bigger question here, and why the margin of victory matters. He needs this win to be as convincing as his 57-35 win over Janet Roberts in 2002. There's an incentive to run up the score: Anything under a 10% victory, and there will be questions whether he would stand up to scrutiny in the statewide race. And I think that's why they advertised so much, went negative, and called so much attention to Wetterling's PAC money.

And why the money and the candidate were recruited against him.