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A proper show, but little more

Not a whole lot of inspiration coming out of the Oregon Democratic gubernatorial debate – the only widely-seen one betwen the three contenders – on KGW-TV tonight.

Probably none of the three – incumbent Ted Kulongoski and challengers Jim Hill and Pete Sorensen – lost any backers. But they probably didn’t pick up many, either. None seemed to have the ability to consistently drive home a point, or get seriously into the implications of their messages.

On presentation points, Kulongoski fared best – he should have and had to, being the incumbent. He came across as smart, informed, connected and practical, and some real passion for his work showed through as well. He took good advantage of the viewer question of why someone would want this job: Kulongoski said he loves the jobs, loves being in the thick of things and making things happen. You could sense he meant it. It was a good response: Why would you want to elect someone with a dour attitude toward the job? (Both of the other two came across are much more dour.)

His performance was far from perfect, though, and it could use some work before he faces off, as he likely will, against a Republican in the fall.

Several times, as in the discussion on the Cascade Locks casino and the PERS case, he lined up – lawyer-like – a rationally sound, almost bullet-proof, even syllogisitic argument for why he did what he did. Yet he fell short, because each time he failed to hit directly the emotional argument lined up against him: Concern about expansion of gaming much more broadly in the first case, and concern that he broke his word in the second (and, actually, in the first as well). He justified his actions but still failed to address where his critics, and even centrist concerned people, were coming from.

He relied too much as well on reciting the recession troubled Oregon faced when he took office in 2003. They were real, true, but he sounded as if he was delivering an excuse for inaction over a period of years, and when he wound up saying Oregon should do a bunch of things his opponents promoted, he sounded a little hollow, a little forced. What might have been more helpful: An overarching picture that put it all in perspective. Ironically, Hill gave him exactly that when he said near the end of the debate that “in the end, the economy underlies all.” That could have been the mantra of Kulongoski’s first couple of years, and made sence, in one phrase of much of what he was trying to say.

Hill seemed stiff, and until toward the end of the debate he too seemed caught up in the details and less in the sense of the thing. His run through on what Oregon owes immigrants, apparently including those in the state illegally, could come back to bite, especially his closing that the state’s economy could “collapse” without them. He came to the larger view at the end, as he said Kulongoski had simply done too little. But by then he had been undercut repeatedly, especially in one question pointing out that many of the things he said Kulongoski should have done, he actually did. (Confronted, Hill was stuck with saying he would have done them better.)

Sorensen wasn’t stiff, but he seemed overeager in trying to hit all the Democratic constituencies and talking points – peace, recyclable, worker benefits, and on. And some of his arguments may not have worked as well as he hoped. His answer on casino gaming, for example, carried the stern warning that the Warm Springs tribe, by virtue of getting the Gorge casino, should not be allowed to have two casinos in operation. Only moments earlier, Kulongoski had said that already was part of the state-tribe deal on the subject.

Will be interesting to see how the Republicans stack up two weeks hence.

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