Does Kay Still Matter? Recapping The Belo Debate

Debra Medina IMG_1818When the GOP gubernatorial debate was finished last night  at Belo’s WFAA-TV in Dallas, the 40 or 50 journalists who’d been watching the show backstage from a “media viewing area” were invited to file into the Channel 8 lobby, where featured performers Gov. Rick Perry, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and Debra Medina had been asked to attend a post-debate press conference. 

Pretty soon, though, word filtered into the lobby  that Perry wouldn’t be showing up. Then came news that Hutchison wouldn’t, either. Only Medina (pictured) stepped to the podium, claiming a “strong” debate performance and ripping her opponents for their absence at the after-party. 

Medina was right about performing strongly in the statewide debate–she outdid Hutchison, for sure–but I’d say the night’s real winner was Perry. In contrast to the public-TV debate held earlier this month, when he came off oily and shallow, last night’s Perry was sharp, composed and commanding, downright statesmanlike. The turnaround was enough to etch his frontrunner status in the race in stone, I’d bet, and by the time the evening was over the increasingly formidable Medina–surprisingly and against all odds– seemed a threat to overtake Kay.

Maybe it was the camera angle–it couldn’t have been his narrow pink tie!–but Perry seemed confident, less defensive than before, better prepared. That showed when he touted Texas’ “No. 1” status, citing low taxes, experienced leadership and tort reform (“we don’t allow for over-suin’, ” Perry said).  

It also showed when he came under repeated fire for his Texas Enterprise Fund–a $380 million jobs initiative that funnels dough to companies that agree to expand (like Dallas-based Texas Instruments) or to move to Texas. 

Seemingly encouraged by tough questions to Perry about the fund from reporter Wayne Slater of The Dallas Morning News–Slater called it a program with a “checkered past”–Hutchison said the state would be better off using the TEF money for education. And Medina branded the program a “corporate slush fund” that rewards Perry’s business friends.

“You are absolutely wrong that this is a program with ‘a checkered past,’ ” Perry told Slater. The reporter had said the governor has “moved the goal posts” on the TEF, amending contracts for some companies that failed to meet their  jobs goals. Asked Perry: “What’s wrong with that?”

It was a good question. Competition among the states for jobs-creating companies is fierce, and Perry can fairly argue that the fund has been a factor in keeping  Texas’ economy relatively healthy. 

Hutchison, for her part, was articulate and (sometimes) pointed during the evening, attacking the governor for mismanagement at TxDOT–“I will jerk it by its roots,” she said–and for presiding over a 30 percent high-school dropout rate (“that’s not success, that’s failure”).

But her position on the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision–whose “restrictions are good restrictions; I think it’s very clear,” she said–showed again why she’s weak among Republican pro-life voters. She also made a risky flat statement about resigning her Senate seat: “There’s not a scintilla of a chance a Democrat will be elected to the Senate.” And, all in all, she simply seemed again to lack a clear compelling argument–“the fire in the belly”–to install  her in the governor’s office over the incumbent.

Medina was another story. Though coming into the debate she was trailing in the polls (12 percent in Rasmussen’s, behind Perry’s 43 percent and Hutchison’s 33), the nurse from Wharton County seized the moment like an old pro, pounding home the anti-incumbent, tea-party themes that have juiced her candidacy lately.

Calling Perry and Hutchison “a team of economic tricksters,” Medina talked about the costs of illegal immigration, why she’s opposed to gay marriage, the use of “nullification” to counter federal encroachment, and her plan to replace property taxes with a sales tax. She also nailed one of the “gotcha” questions thrown her way by the debate panelists, missing the average public school teacher’s pay in Texas by less than $200 (Medina guessed $46,000; the right  answer, the panel said, was $46,179).

At the post-debate press conference, someone asked Medina about her earlier prediction that “financial ruin is knocking at our doorstep”–and whether that wasn’t a little over-the-top. “We’ve seen California go bankrupt,” and the city of Houston is technically bankrupt as well, though it hasn’t been widely reported, Medina replied. “We’ve tripled our debt,” there’s rising unemployment in the U.S., and “now Texas finds itself struggling, too.”  

It’s clear that Medina fancies herself a truth-telling realist, while Perry, she says, “has tried to paint Texas with a broad, rose-colored brush.” (Even some of his supporters agree.) Now–as each candidate vies for 51 percent of the March 2 vote to avoid a runoff–the question is which picture GOP voters will prefer: Debra the Cassandra, or Rick the cheerleader-in-chief. Many will wonder whether Hutchison still matters.      

 

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