by David Safier
Here are some observations about tonight's faceoff between Barber and Kelly on KUAT. [Note: Green Party candidate Charlie Manolakis was there too and did a pretty good job, but I'm going to focus on the two big guys.]
WINNERS AND LOSERS: Barber and Kelly held on to their supporters tonight. Both of them were on their respective games. They represented themselves effectively. Viewers who were either confused about which candidate to support or leaning just a bit one way or the other and listened carefully would mostly break for Barber. He was reasonable and thoughtful and intelligent while Kelly got caught in a few whoppers and, for many people who aren't in his camp, came off too abrasive and cocksure.
STYLES: Kelly had his lines down pat, firing off an impressive array of facts and figures and "proving" his points clearly. He sounded like a bombastic "B" movie actor who had memorized his script. When he ended a lot of his statements, you could almost see the flags waving in the background. Barber was less scripted and more nuanced. His answers addressed the questions directly and usually in detail. It felt like he was in your living room having a serious discussion with you rather than standing on stage playing a part. By the way, any questions about Barber's readiness as a candidate were erased tonight. He was confident and unflinching, as ready to attack as defend.
One of my favorite Kelly moments was early on when he accused Barber of scaring seniors. Scaring seniors? Kelly's ad has his frightened grandpa grabbing his arm and begging, "Don't let Ron Barber cut my benefits, Jesse, I've earned them." He's been riding the "$500 billion cuts in Medicare" wagon ever since he ran against Gabby. Who's doing the scaring here?
The least interesting part for me was early on when the same arguments went back and forth about Medicare and Social Security. But I did love it when Barber talked about Kelly changing his position on privatization and Kelly said he "clarified" his position. Yes, saying you're for privatizing and phasing out the two programs, then a few weeks ago saying you're not for privatization, only for allowing people to put half their money in private accounts (which, of course, is the definition of privatization) is nothing more than a clarification. Works for me.
At one point, when Barber was talking about Kelly's multiple positions on subjects and his incorrect "facts," he said, looking at Kelly, "People are much smarter than you give them credit for." Saying Kelly is playing people for fools could be a double-edged sword that cuts both ways, but I like it, and I hope to hell it's true.
When Barber was asked if he would have voted for the Affordable Health Care Act, he said he wouldn't answer hypotheticals. Gabby, he said, read thousands of emails, talked to people, pored over the entire, lengthy bill and came to her decision to vote for it. He wasn't involved in that process. Barber said a few times he wants to amend the bill to make it better and listed the changes he would make. That was Barber's one case of dodging the question, but he did it in a clear, thoughtful, reasonable way. Listeners could decide whether or not they were satisfied with his answer.
Kelly wants to "Drill Baby, Drill" our way into energy independence and prosperity. Moderator Andrea Kelly called him on his "more oil than Saudi Arabia" claim (By the way, she and Chris Conover did a good job of asking questions on the important issues without lobbing softballs. They moderated well.) Kelly stood by his assertion, getting those flags waving and saying, as he said more than once, "Our best days are ahead of us!" Barber took apart the "more oil than Saudi Arabia" claim. Addressing Kelly's claim that we can drill our way into prosperity, Kelly got off the best zinger of the night -- something like this: "We don't have any place to put oil wells here in Arizona, Jesse. I think you've been spending too much time in Texas."
Possibly the most absurd thing Kelly said -- because I don't think he was prepared on the topic -- was after Barber said we've got to stop subsidizing the oil industry which is making multi-billion dollar profits. Kelly said (this is a close paraphrase), "I have to laugh when I hear about giveaways to oil companies. They pay taxes just like everyone else." He tried to swallow those words later, but that was his finest "I'll say absolutely anything if it sounds good coming out of my mouth" moment. We might see that one in a Barber ad.
Barber said to Kelly, toward the end, "You need to get your facts straight, you need to stop making stuff up." When Kelly responded to a specific instance Barber raised where he flat out contradicted himself on the radio, Kelly basically answered, I'm a Marine, I've got a wife and kids, I run a business -- implying no one with those qualifications could possibly make stuff up.
We've got another debate coming up at the Jewish Community Center with a live audience. The number of supporters for each camp (Democrats need to show up!) and audience noise control by the moderators will be a big issue. It's going to be interesting.