No Buffer for Hilleary 

Despite the Republican’s pleas for company, he’ll be alone onstage with Bredesen

Despite the Republican’s pleas for company, he’ll be alone onstage with Bredesen

What a weird campaign season. This week alone, the state’s Republican nominee for governor was going to bat for the leading independent gubernatorial candidate, asking that the indie be included in a televised debate. Meanwhile, prominent Tennessee Republicans were stepping in front of microphones and cameras to boost the candidacy of the Democratic nominee.

What’s next—a group hug?

It’s not as friendly as it all sounds. Republican Van Hilleary has got to be as scared as an escaped convict at a cop convention to be up onstage alone with Democrat Phil Bredesen at the debate this week (sponsored by the League of Women Voters and to be televised at 7 p.m. Wednesday on WTVF-Channel 5). If there were going to be a third wheel to absorb some of that air time, the law of probabilities dictates that Hilleary would have fewer opportunities to expose himself for the paper tiger he is.

Moreover, while the independent candidate, Ed Sanders, has former Republican credentials, he won’t be eating into Hilleary’s constituency, which is focused on their candidate’s anti-tax demagoguery. Instead, it would be fair to say that whatever support the African American Sanders (an income tax proponent) draws will come primarily from the Bredesen column. Hence, Hilleary’s campaigning for Sanders’ inclusion in the debate.

So where does that leave Bredesen? To offset that 5 or so percent Sanders inevitably will skim from him, Bredesen is making nice with a core of Republicans so put off by Hilleary’s one-dimensional candidacy that they’d just as soon vote for a Democrat. (These Republicans—who held a press conference for Bredesen this week—are not unlike the growing number of Democrats who want Al Gore to stay off the ballot in 2004, except that the Republicans sufficiently revile their candidate that they’re willing to hold hands with the Democratic Party.)

If Lamar Alexander’s right—and he is—that Tennessee is split evenly three ways by Republicans, Democrats and independents, it should be a campaign season for the history books.

More on the debate

Just as high IQ doesn’t necessarily guarantee corresponding scores on standardized tests, Phil Bredesen’s dominance in the debate this week isn’t a foregone conclusion. The examples of smarter and more experienced candidates being outdone behind the debate podium are legion:

♦ Remember that, in the 1960 presidential debate, the people who watched it on TV thought John Kennedy prevailed while the people who listened on the radio thought Richard Nixon won. Kennedy looked youthful and vigorous, and Nixon looked like Nixon. (Keep in mind that Phil Bredesen is not the stud he was when he first entered the mayor’s office more than 10 years ago.)

♦ It’s also worth remembering that sometimes being right doesn’t count for much in debates, as long as the liar is effective. In 1980, Ronald Reagan upset Jimmy Carter in that one airy moment when he dismissed one of Carter’s points, saying, “There you go again.” As it turned out, Carter was right on the facts of his point—not that it mattered.

♦ And, then, of course, canned lines can change everything. In 1984’s second presidential debate, Reagan defended his dotage by saying, “I will not exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” Everyone laughed and no one remembered anything that came before or after that line. Case closed.

♦ More on point, in 1994’s gubernatorial debate, Don Sundquist was programmed enough and Bredesen didn’t appear particularly comfortable with the format at hand that it was at best a wash for Bredesen—at worst a Sundquist victory.

♦ Two years ago, Al Gore was overwhelmingly regarded as the intellectual superior to George W. Bush, but he was held to a different standard (and Gore’s insufferable personality got in the way, as it invariably does). Bush himself said that the expectations for him were so low that “all I had to do was say my name is George W. Bush” and he’d win (or so he told Jay Leno).

All of that said, viewers see what they want to see in a debate—and only a small percentage of swing voters are swayed by the actual event.

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