View From a Height
Commentary from the Mile High City
Friday, July 02, 2004

NFIB Debate Report 

One thing's for sure. Republicans who have been holding out hope that Mike Miles can upset Ken Salazar can forget about it. While Miles has a committed base of activists, he's completely unprepared to be Senator. Democrats who want to win won't give him a second look, and it's no surprise he's failed to generate much buzz, despite his extensive road-tripping. His facts are thin, he talks in populist generalities, and clearly doesn't have the faintest idea how the legislative process actually works.

The debate, while sponsored by the National Federation of Independent Business, was probably 50% attended by activists already committed to one candidate or party. This made it hard to gauge the debate's effect, or even which candidate was most popular with the actual businessmen in attendance. The format was also somewhat restrictive, given the time constraints. Three newspaper panelists were given three questions each, and three pre-selected audience members were each given a question. Each candidate had 90 seconds to respond, with no time for rebuttal. Candidates had to fund time for interplay out of subsequent questions.

The debate focused almost exclusively on business issues: taxes, regulation, health care, and trial lawyers. Until Schaffer broached the topic in his closing remarks, national security was barely mentioned, except in terms of immigration policy.

One of panelists asked what committees each candidate wanted to serve on, which provoked one of the few real exchanges. Salazar immediately answered, "the Judiciary Committee, prevent any more Antonin Scalias," roundly applauded by his supporters. Coors gave a straight answer. Then Schaffer said that he wanted to be on the Finance and Tax Committees, but that "Ken, you've given me an idea. Because I can't stand all this judicial meddling and activism, and if I have to serve on the Judiciary Committee to keep other people off of it, I will." Got a good laugh. Although Salazar stole time from his next question to promote Bush v. Gore as "activism being in the eye of the beholder."

I was disappointed that only Coors opposed drug importation. All the other candidates, Schaffer included, promoted buying price-controlled medicine from Canada as a free-market solution. Schaffer claims to be versed in business, but someone needs to point the absurdity of his position out to him. Miles came out in favor of a single-payer system, which Salazar called unworkable and unrealistic.

But the biggest differences were between the parties. Both Republicans came out in favor of privatizing a portion of Social Security; both Democrats opposed, with Salazar pointing to the stock market as an example of why that wouldn't work. Both Republicans supported the President's energy plan, Schaffer a little more energetically; both Democrats opposed it. But once again, Coors's understanding of economic issues came through when he pointed out that oil is a world market now, not a local one, implying correctly that "energy independence" is a pipe dream.

And both Republicans pointed out $75000 that Salazar has gotten from the trial lawyers to oppose medical liability and tort reform. Coors once again had the best facts, that some doctors are being forced to choose different fields because of medical liability insurance. Salazar wanted to wish the problem away, blaming costs on the big drug and insurance companies. Referring to the trial lawyers, Coors said, "well they're in business, too, in a very twisted, er, different way..." Which did get a good laugh.

A few style points. Salazar has an appealing, somewhat folksy style, despite his stint as Attorney General. His Colorado accent is actually pleasant to listen to, even though I disagree with everything he says in it.

Coors looks and acts patrician, coming to conclusions and opinions slowly, but seeming to hold them with integrity and confidence once they're arrived at. He made a mistake by calling the Coors Beer of 30 years ago a "small business" - people will never believe that, and it sounded like pandering. It seemed to me that he had a hard time connecting with people and looked a little uncomfortable; a few stories and illustrative anecdotes would help him a lot. And his closing statement, written and read, was stiff enough to put cardboard to shame. But he seems, I think, trustworthy in a way that Salazar can't quite pull off.

Schaffer is every inch the political pro. For him this was business. During the pre-debate introductions, he neither clapped nor smiled, transcribing notes and talking points instead. And he made a point of noting personal familiarity with two of the questioners and their businesses.

To the extent that this was a dry run for the general election, Salazar has made it clear he intends to run against President Bush, which may not actually be so wise. His examples of bi-partisanship were Tom Harkin & John McCain, which leaves the intelligent opposition candidate to ask about Zell Miller. He's also got some real vulnerabilities in his understanding of economics, which along with the environment, he wants to make the center of the campaign.

Coors is probably best-positioned to take advantage of those on the merits, and on his personal history. But Schaffer's verbal sparring and familiarity with public policy also play to his advantage. Still, he's not infallible, as he stumbled a few times, and lost track of time during his closing remarks, really a blunder for a skilled debater. The best that can be said right now is that last night exposed some chinks in Salazar's armor that a skilled opponent should be able to exploit.

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