Littwin: Raucous Pueblo crowd wins U.S. Senate debate

PUEBLO — It was the best debate of the season, which says something about Pueblo, something about the raucous crowd, something about the moderator and something not so great about the contestants.

What the debate did mostly, though, was to serve as a sad reminder of how relentlessly boring and issue-deficient this Senate campaign has been.

The stakes are so high — the race could decide which party controls the Senate — and yet the volume on so many of the critical issues has been turned down so low. The only sound you can really hear is that constant screeching noise from the endless round of 30-second campaign ads.

[pullquote]What made this debate different was the real enthusiasm and excitement, two words almost entirely missing from the campaign. The energy came from the crowd.[/pullquote]

There were no headlines from the debate. There was little new said by either Mark Udall or Cory Gardner, other than Gardner joining the knee-jerk, ban-flights-from-Ebola-infected-countries crowd. It was still mostly personhood (we get it) vs. 99 percent (we get that, too) — and a lot of blame for past votes and very little about what to do next (Gardner has his Four Corners plan, which he touts endlessly and never explains and which, after this campaign season, will never be heard from again).

What made the debate different — this would be the third time Udall and Gardner had debated this week — was the evening’s real enthusiasm and excitement, two words almost entirely missing from the campaign.

The energy came from the crowd. The moderator, Pueblo Chieftain managing editor Steve Henson, mostly got out of the way and and let the candidates have at each other, which they did. It made for fun; it didn’t make for the depth of debate you’d hope for. But I’ll take fun at this point.

And the crowd was encouraged to, well, engage. Politics in Colorado are — how can you say it politely? — basically, yes, polite. And if you’re rude (see: Schaffer, Bob; Tancredo, Tom), you get punished for it. But in this case, the candidates were just following the lead of the crowd, which couldn’t get enough.

It sounded more like a football game than a debate. There was everything but tailgating, and that was probably because of the rain. There was competitive name-chanting before the debate began. When the candidates took the stage, they got rock-star cheers, even though there would be no singing. There were more Republicans than Democrats on hand, and the moderator had to admonish the crowd when they were booing over Udall’s turn to talk — Henson said the crowd was “embarrassing” itself — but both candidates caught the fever in the room.

If it didn’t make for better arguments, it did make for better theater, like Udall slamming Gardner for voting to cut $300 million from the Center for Disease Control and Gardner responding that the CDC was spending the money on Jazzercise. This came to whooping from both sides of the hall. When was the last time you heard cheering for Jazzercize?

And though both candidates were more energized than I’d seen them, the rise in temperature worked in Gardner’s favor. Gardner had been humiliated in Tuesday’s Denver Post debate by the moderators for dodging questions. It has become a central issue in the campaign, and Gardner is flirting with that place where dodging equals slick and slick equals untrustworthy.

Republicans have wasted the real Cory Gardner. He is running as a generic Republican, dodging stands on social issues and calling for government to get out of the way. It might as well be Bob Beauprez running. Gardner is smart and charismatic — despite the fact that he actually used the line that Udall and Obama were both five-letter words — and has the ability to charm. Instead, he’s going to editorial board meetings at, say, the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, and seeing them turn into heated arguments about why Gardner won’t answer the question of how, on one hand, he could disavow state personhood and how, on the other, he could still support federal personhood. If there were a third hand, it would be how Gardner can deny that the two personhoods are the same thing.

In this debate, Gardner seemed to have two goals: The first was not to be trapped into being called a dodger again. And because the debate was so free form, he was able to feint consistently without anyone effectively calling him on it. In fact — and this was the second goal — he worked hard to put the onus on Udall, throwing questions his way that he would prefer to dodge.

Udall had a goal, too, which was to counter the 99 percent, voting-with-Obama number. In this hyper-partisan world, I’d guess that nearly all senators are in the 90-plus range on one side or the other. But Udall hit back hard with his own number, which he has used before but never so consistently — about Gardner being rated by the National Journal last year as the 10th most conservative member in the very conservative House. As Udall pointed out, Tancredo never cracked the top 50.

It was numbers vs. numbers and old arguments vs. old arguments and zingers vs. zingers, and the only thing that will be remembered by voters from this week’s three debates — there’s one more next week — is Gardner getting called out by the Denver Post. But I’ll remember the Pueblo crowd. It made me feel like cheering from the press box.

[Wikimedia Moses Namkung crowd photo not taken at the Pueblo debate!]