Thursday, October 19, 2006

ROUNDHOUSE ROUNDUP: TEARING DOWN NEW MEXICO

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
October 1, 2006


Democrats get angry when high-level administration figures say or imply that it’s unpatriotic and harmful to America to criticize President Bush’s Iraq policies.

The anger is justified.

Criticizing the government and any politician, high or low, is one of those rights, to steal a line from Merle Haggard, that our fightin’ men have fought and died to keep.

But here in New Mexico, where our chief executive is a Democrat, the proverbial shoe is on the other foot.

For several weeks now, when asked about Gov. Bill Richardson’s refusal to debate Republican challenger John Dendahl, Richardson’s campaign brass have said all Dendahl wants to do is “tear down New Mexico.”

Tear down New Mexico. Like some crazed Godzilla knocking over buildings, stepping on cars and breathing fire on anything in his way.

When I first read this, in a quote by Richardson campaign chairman Dave Contarino, it took me aback. But giving him the benefit of the doubt, I initially figured it probably was just overheated campaign rhetoric said spontaneously. Surely he didn’t seriously mean it.

But since then, I’ve read it elsewhere and heard it from campaign officials.

Tuesday night, after Dendahl’s 30-minute primetime interview on KOB, Richardson campaign manager Amanda Cooper said it again. She said Dendahl had used his time on TV to “tear down New Mexico.”

I’d been there in the television studio watching the program — which came about because Dendahl had accepted KOB’s invitation for a debate and Richardson had not.

Dendahl indeed did his best to “tear down” Richardson. He called him a “dictator.” He said he was “two-faced.” He said Richardson was corrupt and compared him to former Treasurer Robert Vigil.

He refrained from calling Richardson a “300-pound chicken.” He probably knows he’s gotten enough mileage out of that line.

Dendahl criticized Richardson’s plans, projects and policies, including the spaceport, the Rail Runner and the state investing in the movie industry.

You might disagree with what Dendahl says and stands for. You might not like his style. You might think he’s too harsh on Richardson — though some say he hasn’t been harsh enough.

But I was there. I was listening closely and taking notes. I didn’t hear him tear down New Mexico.

So let’s get it straight: George Bush is not America, and Bill Richardson is not New Mexico.

I “heart” debates: I have to admit, as a self-confessed political junkie, I like going to public debates. Even when the responses are canned and the rhetoric is stale.

I like seeing the supporters of both candidates — and the few stray civic-minded undecideds — filling an auditorium.

I like the anticipation, waiting for a candidate to break out of the polite happy talk and confront his or her opponent with some unpleasant difference between them.

And I like seeing how the confronted candidate responds. Will he have a good counterargument and turn it around? Will he fall back on some tired slogan and choke?

Of course, there won’t be any of that in the Richardson/Dendahl race.

I thought it was great that KOB offered Dendahl and Congressional District 2 Democratic challenger Al Kissling primetime slots this week. (Incumbent GOP Rep. Steve Pearce, like the governor, has refused to debate his opponent on live television.)

In fact, I thought news anchor Carla Aragon had the best line of the night during the Dendahl segment when she said of the show, “It’s a service to the voters.” This might just seem like TV news patter except for the fact that the Richardson campaign repeatedly has said it would be a “disservice to the voters” to debate Dendahl on television.

But it just wasn’t the same as a real debate.

KOB’s original plan was to hold the debate at the Kimo Theatre in Albuquerque, with each side getting tickets for more than 100 supporters. Questions would have come from a panel of reporters and the audience. And the real fun — the candidates would have been given time to ask questions of each other.

Instead, the “one-man debate” was held in a studio, where the only live audience, besides the TV crew, was Dendahl’s wife, Jackie, a New Mexican photographer and myself.

And nobody had to remind us not to cheer or boo.

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