Based on the Saturday night, Sept. 20, debate, we're awarding Dino Rossi two more points on the Guvometer. He held his own with Gov. Chris Gregoire, which is a kind of victory for a challenger. She was too wonky, boasting three-point plans for everything while Dino told anecdotes about his Tlingit grandmother and Seattle elementary schoolteacher father. And Gregoire's defensive attempt to blame the economic bad news on George Bush and Rossi's last term in the state Senate (wasn't somebody named Gary Locke the previous governor, and wasn't there something like the dot.com bust and post 9/11 going on?) was not convincing. Talking about hard times, meanwhile, just underscored the awkward spot the incumbent governor is in as the state economy succumbs and the Boeing strike persists.
The debate was dreadful television, with cringe-inducing questions and answers and a rat-a-tat format on KOMO-TV in Seattle, but it was revealing about the way the two candidates are trying to "frame" the issues. Gregoire wants to make the issue about values — meaning the way Rossi's values are out of line with "the values of the people of the state of Washington." This is code for defining Rossi as a right-winger who opposes stem cell research for religious reasons (he favors it, but not using embryonic stem cells), loves cars and hates transit (insensitive to the pain from high gas prices and crowded buses), is bad on women's issues like abortion (he's a Catholic and pro-life), and supposedly wants to gut education funding to build roads and dogmatically avoid raising taxes. Rossi adeptly slipped most of these punches, though over time Gregoire will wedge independents away from Rossi by highlighting his social conservatism. Such hearth-and-home issues also help to warm up the governor's frosty, lawyerly personality.
Rossi's framing message is that Gregoire has spent so much money in the past four years that she will have to raise taxes, even in a recession, to correct her mistakes. He pounced right on her evasive phrase, "Now is not the time to be even discussing raising taxes." Latent in that framing message is a call for change and for a jobs-oriented, low-tax Republican to balance all those Democrats ruling Olympia and 24 years of Democatic governors.
Rossi then undermines his business-oriented commonsensical stance by engaging in some magical thinking: relieve congestion, take care of the "most vulnerable" (note the qualifier), build a tunnel for the Alaskan Way Viaduct corridor and eight lanes for the Evergreen Point Bridge, solve the huge deficit — all without raising taxes or even resorting to new devices like tolls. It's voodoo economics, but at least he counters Gregoire's claim to be the person with all the plans.
Rossi's real victory in the debate was in seeming not at all extreme or kooky but instead much more open to bipartisan solutions than Gregoire. He was sending Schwarzenegger and Obama post-partisan signals all night, thus seeming the pragmatist, not the ideologue. He had the jokes and the relaxed manner (though both candidates seemed nervous), while Gregoire played the litigator who pushes an argument one step too far. Some voters on the fence might conclude that while Rossi's personal values are right of center, he seems to have a manner that can make deals with the Democratic regime in Olympia. Reaching for an Obama moment, he said the real issue of the election is "changing the culture and direction of state government for a generation." Compared to that, Gregoire didn't seem to find a comfortable seat on the change bandwagon.
No knockout blows, certainly, and there are four more debates to come. A more probing format, with longer time for answers and follow-up questions, might help Gregoire by putting more pressure on Rossi's airy promises.