At a table in the back of the room, the organizers had popcorn poured into a big bowl, ready for people to munch as they watched the contest at the other side of the room. (It was, after ll, ne in a series of North Idaho College popform forums.) This meet-up between the two main candidates for the 1st congresional district was the first big Idaho debate of the general election season, and much anticipated as a prospective definer of candidacies.
And since Republican Bill Sali had a reputation as a bomb-thrower, and since he went all ninja on his fellow Republicans in their primary debate (albeit quite effectively), and since Grant had a public persona to define, the stage seemed set for a slugarama.
We didn't need the popcorn.
It turned out to be a studiously competent discussion of philosophy and outlook.
Sali's performance in this debate was simply best piece of sustained public speaking we've ever seen from him. (Maybe he's done better elsewhere, but this is the best we've seen.) And please draw no implications of faint praise, either. He did exactly what he needed to do, which was to reassure the many conservative Republicans in the district that he is of a piece with the conservative Republicans they've been sending to Congress for so many years. He did that while sounding cool and mainstream, and the rhetoric about not accepting the status quo and shaking up procedures in Congress - which in other contexts could sound edgy - here, in this context, sounded a little perfunctory. But he walked the line with skill, sticking to his ideological approach while presenting it in such a moderate way that you were left with little to feel uneasy about. On top of that, Sali delivered on the heart-warming stuff, connecting with surprising skill on an emotional level. And he had a good close, too: "We need a simpler life with less government, and that's the direction I'm going to take you in as your next congressman."
Sali seemed to play down (not to the point of ducking) his signature issues, abortion and gay marriage; in this debate, they became barely a footnote. Asked a pointed question about the English-as-official-language proposal he endorsed, Sali spoke about his father, who in his early years spoke German but made a point of learning English. (His argument didn't really cover the full sense of the objections to the proposal, but it worked on an empotional level.)
He did all that without a single attack - not so much as a side-comment - on Grant. Toward the end, speaking on the subject of competition, he said that Grant had made him a better prospective public servant by becoming his opponent. Nor did he attack anyone else, not even anyone named Clinton or Kennedy.
It was a master performance. For anyone watching, Sali defined himself in a way that completely contradicted every news report thi year about how difficult he, as a legislator, has been to work with. If he continues doing that in his two or three (sounds as if there may be four debates in all) upcoming performances, he will have positioned himself as simply a likable conservative Republican, which is all he really needs to do to win.
Grant's performance was generally good too, if a little less sweeping.
From a launch that was a bit stiff, he gradually warmed to the audience and got better, it seemed, with every question or comment. By the end he was bordering eloquent, and beginning to convey well to the audience his passion for the race - his concern about the country's direction and what needs to be done to correct it, "to restore this country to the greatness and respect it deserves" (a good line). Like Sali, he did all that without ever going on the attack, at least against anyone personally. This was Grant's first real debate of this sort, and he did well. If he picks up next time with his end point in Coeur d'Alene, putting the corporate attorney further behind and focusing on the passion he clearly feels in this campaign, he will doubtless impress the next audience ven more.
There were no substantial gaffes or glitches. (There were not a lot of very quotable lines, either.) It was a low key Friday night entertainment. It was, however, good civics.
NOTES: Post-debate reports varied widely in focus on various topics. A useful scattering of reactions and observations shows up on Dave Olivieria's Huckleberries, with the added interest that Oliveria was one of the panelists (and asked the only questions to elicit gasps from the audience). Julie Fanselow, blogger for Red State Rebels and the Grant campaign, observes that "Analysis by Randy Stapilus that goes on just a bit too much about how Bill Sali didn't alienate the crowd. But Stapilus is right: This race is Sali's to lose if he can convince Idahoans he is a happy-go-lucky conservative and not the extreme and divisive figure he's been in the Idaho Legislature."
Failed to note in the original post that the debate was sponsored by the Coeur d'Alene Tribe (which had a large presence in the room) and North Idaho College. The Panhandle doesn't always get debates held locally; maybe the involvement of these two substantial local organizations helped pull off this one. Then again, neither of these two candidates were trying to duck.