Race for Governor: Carter, Deal throw jabs in a testy debate. This round goes to Carter.

In a wide-ranging exchange that included ethics, Ebola, education funding, and the suspension of Todd Gurley, the candidates attacked each other more directly. And Libertarian Andrew Hunt threw a few curveballs into the mix.
Andrew Hunt, Nathan Deal, Jason Carter, and moderator Brenda Wood at the debate, October 19, 2014.

Last night I opted to sit in the GPB studio instead of the media “spin room” for the Atlanta Press Club’s gubernatorial debate, and I am glad that I did. Not only did it offer me the first chance to see the candidates together in person, but also the opportunity to watch their supporters react during what turned out to be an aggressive exchange between Republican incumbent Nathan Deal and his Democratic challenger Jason Carter—with the interjection of occasional verbal curveballs courtesy of the third wheel on the ballot, nanotechnologist and Libertarian Andrew Hunt.

Rather than tweeting while cloistered with other journalists and the campaign flaks, I watched First Lady Sandra Deal, one row in front of me, wring her hands throughout the hour-long exchange, and glanced back to watch the reactions of Carter’s stepfather and aunt, one row behind. At the front of the studio, DuBose Porter, chairman of the Georgia Democrats, shook and nodded his head energetically as the debate zigged and zagged from Ebola to ethics to HOPE scholarship funding, to—of all things—the suspension on NCAA allegations of profiteering of UGA football star Todd Gurley. (No big surprise here: all three candidates suggested that restrictions on student athletes should be reexamined in some manner.)

Porter should be pleased. At an earlier debate at the Georgia National Fair in Perry, Carter’s performance was, to put it charitably, lackluster, while Deal stayed on the offensive and unleashed a series of scripted zingers. In last night’s exchange, however, the edge went to Carter, who obviously prepped to counter Deal’s attacks on his experience (“There are 21 bipartisan bills that have my name on that you signed into law”) and lob his own charges (“The governor has played Washington politics with healthcare”). Carter obviously crammed this time around, bringing more specifics to his arguments; in Perry, addressing overcrowded classrooms, he talked about his son’s kindergarten class, a line that might draw sympathetic agreement from a supportive campaign audience but didn’t add much to a debate. Last night he addressed statewide education cuts with particulars—an average of 26 students in each Georgia kindergarten class, instructional days cut in two-thirds of school districts, 9,000 fewer teachers, and 91 districts that have raised property taxes. Carter remained vague in several responses—“You beautifully gloss over it,” said Hunt, when Carter did not offer a specific answer as to how means testing might be implemented for the HOPE scholarship—but overall he came prepared to fight.

Deal, who at the Perry debate appeared energetic and forceful, last night seemed merely frustrated. Asked about a Carter campaign ad questioning his lucrative sale of a salvage yard, Deal dismissed the challenger as a liberal who doesn’t understand business. Called out for an earlier statement that water cures Ebola, Deal blamed an official for giving him incorrect information. And when Hunt rattled off a list of poor rankings for Georgia’s economy, including its high unemployment rate, Deal responded almost peevishly, “I reject your facts.”

In one of the most head-scratching exchanges, Deal dismissed unemployment numbers as “outliers.” The Carter campaign has cited Bureau of Labor Statistics reports on unemployment as evidence of Deal’s poor leadership. The governor has responded by questioning the BLS data itself. This is disingenuous: If the data were favorable, Deal would tout it as an indicator of success, since it’s not, he dismisses it. His choice of the word “outliers” seems dismissive of the 380,000 Georgians looking for work. It sounded … indelicate.

If Deal seems vexed, it’s understandable. In a state that favors incumbents and still leans right, the GOP governor should be cruising to re-election. But this race, which is Deal’s to lose, remains tied and possibly headed for a run-off. Its closeness is not a testament to his challengers. Forget Carter’s political skill and Hunt’s appeal to Independents; this election is a referendum on Deal’s record. His inability to budge poll numbers in large part reflects the governor’s inability to connect with voters and communicate a clear vision for Georgia. In last night’s debate, as he did in Perry, Deal doubled—and then tripled—down on an optimistic take on the state’s economy that seems to dismiss the lingering economic challenges that many Georgians are still experiencing. With just two weeks left before election day, it is unlikely that Deal will suddenly develop an emphatic streak—meaning that he’s leaving the race open to his opponent to win.

If you missed the debate, you can watch the full exchange below: