The Belo Debate: My Top 10 Observations

For no other reason than sheer curiosity, I spent last night at WFAA studios for the taping of The Belo Debate featuring Republican gubernatorial primary candidates Rick Perry, Kay Bailey Hutchison and Debra Medina. I just had to know why dozens of journalists would pack themselves into a storage room to watch an event on television that, of course, they could watch on television anywhere and report the exact same story.

The possible upside to being in attendance? Catching the post-debate press conference. But, as had been the case after the first debate, Perry and Hutchison balked at facing the press (Perry announced early that he was out; Hutchison considered it before ultimately declining), while Medina made a statement, took a few questions and left. So while I still try to figure out why everyone didn't just watch it from the comfort of their homes, here are my top 10 observations, a concept admittedly stolen from Richie over at the Sportatorium.

10. This is likely the last debate between these three until the March 2 primary, and Belo decides that relevant questions include naming the first governor of Texas (which Hutchison flubbed, guessing "Burleson," while no Texas governor had that name) and estimating the average annual salary for a teacher (which Medina nailed, guessing $46,000, only $179 off the mark). Even the editorial board at The Dallas Morning News had issues with what they referred to as "Double Jeopardy" questioning. These are not questions that matter to voters, and the exercise amounted to a total waste of time.

9. Will Perry stay for all four years if he's reelected? Will Hutchison really leave the Senate no matter what happens in the primary? Again, these aren't issues germane to the race! Of course, Perry is going to say he's going to serve all four years as governor if he's reelected. And, of course, Hutchison will maintain that she's leaving the Senate no matter what -- she'd be contradicting her previous stance if she said anything else. But does anyone seriously believe that Hutchison is ready to end her political career if she loses? And does anyone think Perry would balk at a presidential run in 2012 if the opportunity presented itself?

8. Hutchison spent a lot of time talking about Perry's support of the Trans-Texas Corridor, but she struggled to articulate why it was such a bad idea. I don't think the words "eminent domain" came out of her mouth once. While the plan is dead, which Perry admitted last night, Hutchison must keep its sprit alive by detailing Perry's land grab. Heck, tell a story about all the farmers who have called you with land that has been in their families for generations that Perry wanted to take from them. This is an issue that matters to a lot of conservatives, but she's not making it resonate the way it should.

7. A lot of time was spent discussing the Texas Enterprise Fund -- $380 million of taxpayers' dough that has been used to lure companies to Texas or convince existing ones to expand. Both Hutchison and Medina attacked Perry on this issue, but it was one area where I thought Perry did relatively well. He strongly defended its use ("I will defend that any day"), while Medina called it a "corporate slush fund," and Hutchison said the businesses would have come here anyway, arguing that the money would have been better spent on education. But where were the facts from Medina and Hutchison?

6. Medina handled her toughest question of the night extremely well, which was related to her comments at an August 2009 Texas Sovereignty or Secession Rally in Austin. She made it clear that she's "never been a fan of secession," and she added that her statements were made in response to Perry's "ill-advised comments" on secession months earlier.

5. Perry was less smarmy than the last debate, but that's not saying much. His low point? Winking at San Antonio's Sarah Lucero during the lightning round of questions (see it at -5:29). I'm guessing Lucero spent extra time in the shower last night scrubbing away that painful exchange. I know I did.

4. Doesn't anyone have any real solutions to our road crisis? Hutchison and Medina aren't convinced that there's really a funding problem and apparently believe an audit of TxDOT will solve any problems. Perry is against raising the gas tax and seems to think toll roads are the answer. All three candidates simply failed to advance the ball forward on this issue.

3. Perry was at his absolute worst when forced to answer questions about allowing instate tuition to illegal immigrants, while not offering the same to legal residents from other states. He noted that the illegal immigrants are on a path to citizenship, but for someone who claims to be hardcore on the issue of illegal immigration, this stance makes no sense. Denying educational opportunities to U.S. citizens in favor of illegal immigrants doesn't jibe with conservatives. Plain and simple.

2. Boy, after she was laughed at in the first debate regarding her answers about abortion, you'd think Hutchison would have come prepared. DMN'er Wayne Slater asked her: "Do you support overturning the ruling that legalized abortion in America -- yes or no?" Hutchison said "no," deferring to U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts' opinion on the matter. Then after she failed to answer whether she actually believed there would be more abortions if Roe v. Wade was overturned, Slater said, "I think you said tonight that you think the legalization of abortion ruling should stand." To which she replied, "I do not characterize it that way. Those are your words, not mine." Huh? (Watch the madness unfold for yourself.)

1. Much like the first debate, Medina emerged as the winner, if nothing else for not being Perry or Hutchison, whom she described as a "team of economic tricksters." She also gets credit for firing off an explosive press release, which is below, calling "bullshit" on Perry just minutes before the debate. As she did in the press release, Medina called Perry out in the debate for increasing spending by 13.5 percent, and she continued to sell voters on her abolition of property tax, which she discusssed with me Thursday afternoon.

Medina benefits by not having a track record to attack, comes across as a veritable encyclopedia of knowledge, has been smart in attacking Perry and because she's the underdog, she's forced to come up with actual solutions to problems as opposed to relying on her name ID or conservative credentials (which actually seem to be more solid than Perry's and Hutchison's). She'll undoubtedly get another boost in the polls from her performance, but it's unlikely to be enough to do much else than force a runoff between the two heavyweights, which shouldn't result in much of a contest given Hutchison's struggling campaign.

Debra Medina Calls "Bullshit" on Perry Before Debate

DALLAS, TX, Friday, January 29, 2010 -- According to Governor Rick Perry, under his leadership, Texas is the strongest state in the nation, but the devil is in the details.

In a recent interview at the Blogger's Summit, Governor Perry said that ending the property tax in Texas was a very intriguing and positive idea. However, he fell short of embracing the end of property tax or any significant change in management of the state's current fiscal crisis, maintaining that Texas is on the right path. "Well, I'm saying "bullshit" and here's why," Medina said.

Not only have we seen loss of jobs in the private sector, the most recent State Comptroller's Fiscal Notes shows total state tax collections have fallen by over 20%, while funds from the federal government to the state government have risen nearly 34% so far this year over last year, to plug the huge hole in Governor Perry's state budget.

Furthermore, while Texas families and businesses have been tightening their belts during that same year, and while Governor Perry is boasting about our solid economic footing, he has spent nearly $1.7 Billion in his own department, 13.5% more this year than last!

"A double-digit spending increase is not sound management. It feels like state theft, pure and simple. He is taking food from the mouths of Texans," says Debra Medina. "While the Governor is living high-off-the-hog, Texas families are struggling to feed their children and pay their bills."

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Sam Merten
Contact: Sam Merten