Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Second debate more civil, and maybe more help for Cal

Tuesday night's debate between the Democratic candidates for their party's U.S. Senate nomination was a more civil affair than last week's debate, which was marked by sniping from the candidates and a short, messy format. And just guessing here, but it seemed to me Cal Cunningham helped himself a little more than Elaine Marshall as they head into the June 22 runoff.

Early voting has already begun, of course, but expectations are that turnout will be, in technical terms, lame bordering on dismal. Those who've watched the debates -- sponsored last week by WRAL-TV and Tuesday by NBC 17 and the N.C. League of Women Voters -- were likely looking for distinctions between the two candidates that would help make up their minds on whom to support or even whether to go to the polls.

I liked Tuesday's debate better. For one thing, NBC 17 used just one moderator, Kim Gernardo, in an hour-long format rather than the two moderators in a half-hour format that WRAL-TV had. If I were WRAL, I'd scrap the two-moderator arrangement and rethink the lightning-round, yes-or-no answers it wanted from candidates last week.  Asking candidates if they'd vote for a tax increase, yes or no, seems to me to emphasize the worst about politics by failing to provide context of what might be in such a proposed tax increase. Raise taxes on retired school teachers? Nobody would want to do that. Raise taxes to, say, keep Ft. Bragg open another 10 years? Maybe so. Or keep the nation's school teachers in the classroom? That's also might bring a different result.

It seemed to me that NBC 17's and the League's format worked smoother and gave the candidates a bit more time to answer the questions, which generally focused on the same topics as last week: The oil spill, immigration, Social Security, don't ask, don't tell and the record of incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Richard Burr.

One place where Cunningham scored points, I thought, was his emphasis on his service in Iraq and his support of the surge in Afghanistan. Cunningham pointed out that if elected, he would be the first Iraq veteran in the Senate. Cunningham is a military lawyer. He would also be the first U.S. senator from North Carolina with military experience since Sen. Jesse Helms, who served in the Senate from 1972-2002, and who was in the Navy during World War II, though he stayed stateside. Former U.S. Sen. Terry Sanford, who served from 1986-1992, was, I think, the last U.S. senator from North Carolina who served in combat. He was an Army paratrooper in World War II. Lauch Faircloth, the Republican who beat Sanford in the 1992 Senate race and served one term, also served in the Army in the mid-1950s.

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