A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
June 7, 2007
Gov. Bill Richardson’s debate performance in Manchester, N.H., on Sunday was a vast improvement over his initial debate showing in South Carolina in April.
He was more relaxed and less inclined to grimace or scowl. And despite the New Hampshire humidity — which I’ll personally testify is an inspiration to perspiration — he didn’t appear to be sweating nearly as much as he did in that first debate.
Still it would be a mistake to call Sunday’s debate a big breakthrough for Richardson.
While he might be eligible for the “most improved” award, he still got some bad reviews. Even worse, he barely got mentioned in many national stories.
That might be less the fault of Richardson than CNN, which organized and televised the event. Many commentators pointed out the format seemed to favor the front-runners — Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards.
One problem managing these debates is the sheer number of candidates. I started having ugly flashbacks of those unwieldy candidate forums years ago when Santa Fe had a dozen candidates for mayor.
Richardson wasn’t asked a question until 18 minutes into the debate. I could feel his pain when the question about making English the nation’s official language came up. Here was a chance to brag that he is governor of a state that has always had two official languages. But he didn’t get a chance to respond.
When Richardson was called on, however, his answers almost always reverted to his standard campaign rhetoric and meandered off subject.
When someone asks him a question on an issue, he starts shotgunning all his soundbites on that general topic. Thus, when asked Sunday about providing health insurance for all without raising taxes, he started talking about child immunization and getting junk food out of the schools.
He had a couple of good moments. His idea to threaten a 2008 Summer Olympics boycott to pressure China into helping stop the violence in Sudan might not turn out any better than Jimmy Carter’s 1980 Olympic boycott. But it’s an idea that might have made national headlines had Clinton or Obama suggested it.
Richardson also gave a good, concise answer on veterans’ health care. His idea of a “hero health card,” which would allow veterans to get care at any hospital, deserves more discussion.
But, several times in the debate, moderator Wolf Blitzer had to cut off Richardson or try to steer him back on course. That happened to other candidates as well, but Richardson wasted much of his precious television time this way.
Must be doing something right: Polls show Richardson gaining, though still a second-tier candidate. A WBZ/Franklin Pierce College poll taken the day after the debate shows the only two candidates gaining significant strength in New Hampshire are Clinton and Richardson.
Clinton has picked up 6 points since March, putting her at 38 percent. Richardson gained 5 points, putting him at 8 percent. He’s tied with Al Gore — who hasn’t declared he’s running — but still lagging behind Obama and Edwards. Joe Biden has moved up slightly since March, to 4 percent from 1 percent.
This poll showed 60 percent of the people who had watched the debate and read, saw or heard media reports thought Clinton won the debate. One percent said Richardson.
The numbers are based on telephone interviews Monday with 424 likely Democratic presidential primary voters. The margin of error is 4.8 percentage points.
Meanwhile, the latest Rasmussen poll, released Wednesday, showed Richardson gaining on Republican candidates. The poll, taken two days after Richardson’s May 27 Meet the Press appearance, showed him trailing Rudy Giuliani by only 4 points, 43 percent to 39 percent.
Meanwhile, John McCain was ahead of Richardson by 5 points, 43 percent to 38 percent.
This national telephone survey of 800 likely voters has a 4-point margin of error.
“Richardson has improved significantly against both candidates over the past several months,” according to the Rasmussen Report Web site. “In April, Giuliani was leading Richardson by 17 percentage points, 51 percent to 34 percent. In late February, Richardson trailed McCain by nine points, 36 percent to 45 percent.
“Richardson’s competitive showing is as much a function of soft support for the leading GOP candidates as his own viability as a runner-up Democratic candidate. At least 18 percent in each match-up are undecided or prefer a third party option.”
The bad news for the governor from Rasmussen is that Richardson’s disapproval number is bigger than his approval number — 42 percent to 31 percent.
Worst-case scenarios: One of the cheesiest aspects of the presidential debates this season are those questions that seem ripped out of Tom Clancy novels or episodes of the TV series 24.
On Sunday, a question initially posed to Dennis Kucinich was “if you were president of the United States and the intelligence community said to you, ‘We know where Osama bin Laden is. He’s in Pakistan. We’ve got the specific target. But he’s only going to be there for 20 minutes. You’ve got to give the order yes or no to take him out with a Hellfire missile, but it’s going to kill some innocent civilians at the same time: What would be your decision?”
Such questions are irritating and probably make a sad comment about the mentality of today’s electorate. But I bet they’re fun to write.
Here’s my suggestion for the next debate: “What if a giant meteor were heading toward Earth and the only one who could stop it was God, and the only way He’d do it was if the U.S. agreed to allow children to pray in public schools. Would you do that? Raise your hands if you’d allow it.”
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