With four weeks until the election, and with the U.S. Senate and gubernatorial races essentially tied, can someone tell me why last night’s debate extravaganza at the Georgia National Fair in Perry wasn’t broadcast outside of Macon? As it turned out, though, there are probably two people who woke up this morning relieved that it wasn’t: David Perdue and Jason Carter. Both men—Perdue, the Republican running against Michelle Nunn for Senate, and Carter, the Democrat looking to unseat Governor Nathan Deal—came across as unprepared to cite specifics and unwilling to make the case for themselves.
Nunn kept Perdue on the defensive, hammering his record as a CEO who oversaw mass layoffs and outsourcing. Nunn repeatedly referenced a 2005 deposition, first reported by Politico, in which Perdue, asked to described his experience outsourcing, said, “Yeah, I spent most of my career doing that.” Perdue, in turn, cited Nunn’s now infamous leaked campaign memo that described concerns about her appearing “too liberal” and needing to forge a stronger connection with rural voters.
Against the cacophony of cheering (and booing) supporters in a huge fairgrounds hall, the encounter was high on energy if low on audible and coherent debate. Nunn won the contest by being in command of specifics (citing Perdue’s salary as Dollar General CEO in contrast to the minimum wage rates paid employees, for instance). While Perdue doubled, and then tripled down, on efforts to tie Nunn to President Obama and Senate majority leader Harry Reid, Nunn deflected the attacks by stressing her commitment to bipartisanship. “I’m not sure that he recognizes that he is not running against Harry Reid or Barack Obama,” she said to the moderator. “He’s running against me.” In one of her best lines, she reminded Perdue (and voters) that Obama will not be in office much longer. “We have two more years of President Obama, and then we will have another president, and we need someone who is going to work with and respect whoever is the president to actually get things done on behalf of the American people,” she said.
The Libertarian senate candidate, Amanda Swafford, was largely ignored during the debate, and the panelists did her few favors, asking her questions about medical marijuana and being, well, a Libertarian.
While the first round of the evening went to Nunn, in the second debate, governor Nathan Deal demonstrated why he has not lost an election yet. In TV ads, and even on stump appearances, the governor can look distracted and tired, but as soon as the debate started, Deal vigorously pulled out a string of seemingly prepared zingers (the best: referring to Carter taking an “epiphany tour” of schools outside of metro Atlanta and thus decided to vote against Deal’s education budget). Carter pressed on ethics, education, and the dismal economy, but Deal pushed back, citing Carter’s lack of statehouse experience: “You’ve never passed a bill. You’ve never been put in a position of leadership in your own conference.” Carter, who is a charismatic speaker and generally in command of wonkish talking points, seemed determined to stick to his big-picture themes, offering few specifics.
If Deal lost ground in the debate, it was thanks to two lines of his own that Democrats already are using against him. In discussing ethics, he noted, “We have never been indicted,” which is hardly a ringing defense. And in his summary statement, he asked voters to consider how they are compared to four years ago. With the state’s unemployment rate the worst in the country, reports this week showing school test scores slipping, and a race that remains close even with an infusion of outside ads supporting Deal, the governor might have been better off staying on the attack rather than reminding voters of his record.
The next debates, organized by the Atlanta Press Club, are scheduled for later this month, and will be televised live on GPB. The gubernatorial debate will take place Sunday, October 19 at 7 p.m., and the Senate debate will be held Sunday, October 26, and air at 7 p.m.