Mike Littwin: Winning the debate, losing the fight
September 11, 2014
Grand Junction — Let's cut to the chase. Debates are notoriously hard to judge, but here's my best guess: In the big Saturday night showdown last week with Mark Udall, Cory Gardner won the debate and lost the fight.
Gardner performed exactly as expected. He was slick and he was smooth and he was quick on his feet.
He smiled when he was attacking, and he smiled even in the rare instances when he wasn't.
Gardner's game plan was clear from the start. He would deliver countless variations on a single theme, which can be summed up this way: Mark Udall and Barack Obama are joined at the hip, and even Obamacare couldn't separate them.
As any good debater would, Gardner made his points repeatedly. And with feeling. Some highlights: Udall is an Obama loyalist. He's a 99 percenter. He was the deciding vote (one of 60 deciding votes, as it turned out) for Obamacare. And furthermore: Udall, Obama. And yes: Obama, Udall. And did I mention: Udall, Obama.
The line of the evening came when Udall, after another Gardner attack, said, "I'm curious what problem facing the nation I haven't caused."
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Gardner's reply: "Me, too."
Those Republicans in the Club 20 crowd, which was fairly evenly divided, ate it up. And why not? This was all they could have hoped for — someone, finally, to lead them out of the wilderness.
They've got the best possible candidate in Gardner (who represents, at this point, pretty much the entire GOP bench). They've got him running in the best possible year (the dreaded six-year itch, when the out party nearly always gains). They've got more money than they know how to spend (which is true for both parties in our speech-equals-boatloads-of-money era).
And, most of all, they've got the one issue upon which they've been pounding until it's bruised and battered out of all recognition (and one that could put Republicans in control of the U.S. Senate).
But here's the catch. And it's a big one.
If the election is a referendum on Obama and Obamacare, Gardner is going to win. I can read the polls. But if the election were simply a referendum on Obama and Obamacare, any Republican would win.
If the election turns out to about something more than that, Gardner basically wasted his night.
You see, I'm going to guess that you already knew Mark Udall voted for Obamacare. I'm going to guess you already knew he voted with Obama most of the time. I'm going to guess you had seen similar messages on countless TV ads. I'm going to guess that you knew it before you had seen any of the TV ads.
And here's something that you might guess: All the time that Gardner was hitting Udall on Obama and Obamacare, we didn't hear much about what he might do to fix Obamacare or replace Obamacare or not replace Obamacare.
In other words, Gardner didn't move the argument one inch. This is a problem. It may also be a waste of Gardner's talents.
Republicans haven't won a top-line election in Colorado since 2004. It has occurred to some people that this might actually be a trend and that once-red, now-purple Colorado is on the verge of going blue. I've always thought it's a little more complicated than that.
In a generic election — say for Secretary of State when Scott Gessler is not involved — a generic Republican is just as likely to win, probably more likely, than a generic Democrat. It's when the issues come into play that Republicans lose. It seems to me they lose on the merits. They lose by going all Tancredo on Latinos and by going all personhood on women.
Udall wasn't as smooth or as slick as Gardner. He stammered a bit. But he still got in shots on immigration, on the shutdown, on 52 votes against Obamacare. And, of course, on social issues. And, in a room where real people were actually listening, when Gardner answered an abortion question with his line about over-the-counter birth control, it sounded very much like what it is — a non-sequitur.
It's hard to win one of these debates. In truth, you can only lose them. And you don't lose them on the facts. You lose them on gaffes, which turn into headlines, which turn into talk radio fodder, which, say, Bob Beauprez or John Hickenlooper could tell you about, although neither of them managed a single gaffe in their debate Saturday.
Gardner may have won on style points, but the real news in the Udall-Gardner race came the next morning with the release of the latest NBC/Marist poll, which showed Udall leading by six points, 48-42. In the same poll, it showed Obama's approval ratings in the state at 39 percent. It's confusing. Didn't they know: Udall, Obama. Obama, Udall.