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Wu and Cornilles

Cornilles and Wu
Rob Corbilles (left) and David Wu at Portland/Randy Stapilus

Watch the (admittedly uncertain) evidence of yard signage around Oregon’s 1st district, and you’ll see a lot of it for Republican Rob Cornilles, the Republican candidate for the U.S. House seat and maybe the toughest challenger Democratic Representative David Wu has faced. Some of that is the Tea Party atmosphere of the day, but some of it probably has to do with Cornilles too. He’s pretty good at presenting himself (that’s not a knock, just an essential candidate asset), a task which – as this business consultant must know – starts with understanding your audience, and relating to it where it is.

On Friday Cornilles debated Wu in a conference center just south of downtown Portland – lockdown Democratic territory. He, and his campaign, did two things to make the best of the situation. One is that his campaign pushed to get a sizable number of backers to the event; despite a prohibition on cheers or boos, you could tell they were there, and that they outnumbered the Democratic opposition in the audience of 150 or so. The other thing he did, which he might be doing elsewhere around this mostly Democratic district too, was to carefully modulate his message.

The task was eased by the core subject at hand: The weak economy, and the federal government’s spending and taxes. Broadly, there wasn’t a lot of disagreement between the candidates that those were the big subjects, and that better work needs to be done on them. It fit with Cornilles’ own backgrtound, as owner of a consulting business called Game Face, and with staying way from some of the more overtly ideological stances and statements many Republican candidate make this year. At the same time, he presented himself as a mainstream Republican; the line was carefully drawn.

Cornilles sent a blast at paperwork imposed on business, on the size of the health care bill, on federal spending and debt, the need to cut government spending, and cut taxes – all standard-issue subjects for Republican candidates. He also described himself as an environmentalist (no details offered), as a strong supporter of education and the need to place a priority on it (though no more details were proffered), a backer of health care reform (details missing, though he’s opposed generally to the current law) and so on. His framework was very much based around the need to think in business terms – “This is why we need people like me who have run a business for 15 years.”

He spoke crisply and energetically (he sounded like an excellent motivational speaker), but the pieces didn’t always fit: Cut government, but get more serious about education spending, and some regulations are okay sort of but government paperwork is drowning businesses . . . It sounded like a base foundation of conventional Republican talk, but with an overlay of other items intended to qualify and seemingly moderate. As definitive as he sounded at any single moment, the overall pieces didn’t cohere well.

Wu didn’t offer a single big picture statement either, but he did have several pieces that worked together overall. His strongest hit, and the biggest point of disagreement, was on the scheduled-to-expire tax cuts for people making more than $250,000 a year. Wu took after them as tax cuts for the wealthy. Cornilles replied that he was dismayed “whe we demonize classes of our society. It’s not helpful” – and said the cuts should be made permanent. Wu noted that “what he’s not saying” is that continuing the tax cuts would deepen the federal deficit, about which Cornilles had been complaining, by about $700 billion over the next decade.

There was also a sharp set of jabs after Wu said that Cornilles has proposed cuts in Social Security and Medicare, Cornilles said he had not, and Wu suggested that he had it on tape. (We’ll take a look around to see what we can find on this.)

It was a civil debate, though, albeit one with a sort of unfinished feel. At the end, Cornilles offered to debate Wu more times, up to one in each county in the district. Wu didn’t directly reply. But it might not be a bad idea to do that; this debate felt more like the start of a conversation than the end of one.

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