The Idaho Falls clash

There are supposed to be four debates in the Idaho gubernatorial campaign upcoming, and if the first – in Idaho Falls, Thursday – is a reasonable guide, the next three ought to be entertaining at least. And something of a marker of the real differences between Republican Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter and Democratic candidate Keith Allred. Who “won” may depend on the world view you bring with you; what you got was a fair representation of both candidates.

(No full video of the event, backed by the Idaho Falls City Club, seems to be available. But Idahoans and others can listen for now at least to a stream uploaded by . . . someone, to an online storage site. Of that ogg vorbis stream doesn’t float your browser, there’s an mp3 available too.)

A generic gripe: Both tossed in so many references to the “founding fathers” that you began to wonder if either of them really understands that the year is 2010, not 1790. But then, this is an Idaho Falls audience.

Otter has traditionally gotten underrated as a debater, but over the years he has consistently shown some skill at it, and did again on Thursday. He sounded a little bombastic, often, and an angry tone seemed to seep in regularly; he only occasionally sounded like the happy warrior of yore. (He’s mostly having to defend now, not launch a crusade.)

But he slipped in some neat jabs at Allred, notably at the Democrat’s proposals to chop out some as-yet-unnamed sales tax exemption, which Otter routinely described as tax increases (which as a matter of practice is what they would be).

At one point in a rebuttal, Otter delivered a question to Allred, and Allred – stepping outside the debate rules – went ahead and answered it. To which Otter slipped in, “That doesn’t mean under the rules you get to reply” – drawing laughter.

But Allred got some laughter of his own (and showed off his own debate skilled) when he quickly answered, “It’s good to do this with a career politician who has learned all the tricks.”

Otter’s weakness in the debate (something he presumably could strengthen in those remaining) was in fashioning the case for what he has accomplished in his current term, and what he would want to accomplish in his next. The closest he seemed to come was in his closing statement, when he spoke of zero-based budgeting and fostering a culture among state managers to consider themselves the servants of the people of the state.

Allred’s strength was in laying out his firing case against Otter. (That’s a little unexpected, since he likes to focus on the mediative aspects of his candidacy, but essential when running against an incumbent.) He efficiently painted a picture of Otter as beholden to big money and special interests and cut off from most Idahoans, citing support for private prison and gas tax increases among the pieces of evidence. Tax exemptions, he said, tend to go to “the powerful and connected.” (Otter seemed to have little direct rebuttal to this general line of attack, other than a nice defence of his Capital for a Day program.)

Allred also more cleanly dispatched of some of his party’s tougher associated issues. Right to work repeal? Same-sex marriage? (Republicans, including Otter in the former case, have swiped at him on both.) Allred said he was against both, probably displeasing a lot of Democrats, but clearing the table. Otter’s main counterpart was his party’s support, at its Idaho Falls convention, of repeal of the 17th amendment – to in other ways take away from voters the choice of U.S. senators, and give it to the state legislatures. Otter tried saying that his focus is on the 10th amendment on state’s rights (and he sure did focus on it, probably referencing it more times than education, transportation or any other single subject), but he completely garbled any position on repeal of the 17th, other than to say what everyone knows, that it’s not going to happen.

One notable statement from Otter, in the contest of highway repair spending: “Deferred maintenance is the same thing as deficit spending.” It’s a fair and reasonable analysis. But a question suggests itself: Would Otter make the same argument for other state and local services, from education to parks to health care?

If Otter was a little blustery, Allred was calmer and cooler. But if he got to call Otter a “career politician,” Otter could and did hand the “lobbyist” label on Allred. And Otter’s characterization of Allred’s tax stances, arguing that Idaho’s income taxes are too high while calling for exemption repeals, did put him a little off-balance. And if Otter did not sound especially happy, he also did not come across as either unenthusiastic or tired.

Two pretty solid debaters. Watch and see how they hone this for the next time around.

REPUBLICAN TAKE The state Republican Party was quick to deliver its take on the debate.

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