Like him or hate him, Jeb Bush is good at what he does.
His political savvy and prowess on the stump would rival that of his brother, and any other politician for, that matter. And, in a gubernatorial election where, besides education, the issues have become muddled, that may be just enough to win.
In Tuesday’s third and final debate before the Nov. 5 election, Bush again played the role of polished politician while opponent Bill McBride continued to struggle.
Bush spent much of the one-hour debate on the offensive and the rest of the time efficiently putting out fires. McBride tripped and stumbled through the first half of the session, then spent the second half trying to catch up. While he rallied late, it was not enough to ruffle his calm opponent.
Debates aren’t everything in politics, but they can make a difference in close elections. Take the first televised debate in a tight presidential race between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. A poor showing by Nixon virtually secured his defeat. Again, in the most recent presidential race, a lighthearted, “aw-shucks” sort of attitude during debates from George W. Bush swung votes.
In a race for governor in which the candidates are separated by a mere 5 percentage points, with 6 percent remaining undecided, Tuesday may turn out to be vital. And, as with the presidential debates, the line between victory and defeat can be broken down to appearances more than issues. That’s where Bush’s sharp political edge shone through.
The most notable difference between the candidates was how they presented their plans. While Bush used specific numbers, McBride was often quite general. As has been the complaint through most of his campaign, he didn’t cite specifics in presenting his policies.
A notable example was the discussion surrounding Amendment 9, which will decrease class sizes at a cost of anywhere between $5 billion and $28 billion. Bush opposes the amendment because he said teaching quality will diminish, and the price is too high. McBride supports the bill and has made it a key point in his campaign. He said he will pay for it using a 50-cent-per-pack cigarette tax.
Veteran moderator Tim Russert pointed out to McBride that such a tax would account for only $500 million a year. McBride stumbled when asked where the rest of the money would come from, finally settling on an across-the-board money cut from general revenues, taking a slice of money from all state-run programs.
Bush also showed his abilities at handling tough, possibly damaging questions, while McBride struggled again.
Specifically for Bush, Russert asked about two ill-advised comments, one concerning “devious plans” with education and another about an arrested “lesbian.”
Bush handled both questions with ease, giving a seemingly sincere apology and explaining his embarrassment.
McBride was faced with a similar situation when asked about controversial Miami clergyman Victor Curry. McBride was asked by Russert about comments he made allying himself with Curry, who has called the Bush family “neo-Nazis” and accused them of being in-line with Osama bin Laden.
Instead of following Bush’s lead and quickly disposing of the issue, McBride allowed it to be dragged out into a five minute discussion. By the end of the discussion, he was attacking Bush.
“This is not a fistfight,” McBride said to Bush, while accusing the governor of bringing up what he perceived as a non-issue.
While Bush stifled a smile, Russert commented that he, and not Bush, asked the question. The entire sequence hurt McBride, and the commercial break was obviously welcomed.
McBride’s overt mistakes were enhanced by the strengths of Bush, who was more polished on the intangible ins and outs of debating. Though they might seem small, each candidate’s subtle movements and mannerisms can have a psychological effect on voters.
In the Nixon debate, Kennedy wore makeup and adjusted expressions to compensate for a bout with illness. Nixon, though completely healthy, looked pale and sweaty without any makeup or practice with expressions. This made an impact on viewers, despite what the issues may have been.
The subtle differences in expression were most evident during the final arguments. While McBride made several strong statements explaining to the public that if they feel Bush has let them down, they have a choice. His comments seemed heartfelt and genuine. The only problem was he was staring downward and off-screen, seemingly directing his comments to the floor. It was a small, yet meaningful blunder.
Bush, on the other hand, spoke with an equal air of care and concern. He, however, spoke directly into the camera. That move made him come across as if he was talking to each viewer personally, a sign of an experienced television debater.
In addition, whenever McBride spoke sternly to Bush, he would not look his opponent in the eye. When Bush addressed McBride, he looked directly at the Democrat, whether his gaze was returned or not.
Bush’s demeanor was clearly calmer and more relaxed, while McBride seemed outmatched. The one point of the debate where McBride seemed to hold his own was a final five-minute discussion about malpractice insurance and gay adoption.
McBride looked strong calling Florida’s gay adoption law discriminatory and accusing the governor of “sitting on his hands” when it comes to malpractice law. He again, however, did not present ideas about how he would improve the situation if elected governor.
As a final question following that discussion, Russert asked McBride to say something nice about Bush.
“I like his mom very much,” McBride said, garnering a laugh from the crowd.
While this period was a highlight for McBride, the damage seemed already done because his major blunders came on his platform issues.
Now, with two weeks remaining, the most visible portion of the run for the governor’s mansion is over. It will be a waiting game to see what kind of an effect the debate will have.
By no means is the race over. Bush will need to spend the last two weeks banging away at the subject of education and explaining what he will do to pull Florida out of its hole. McBride, as has been a concern since the campaign began, needs to define his platforms more clearly and take a stronger stand on something other than education.
If McBride can chip away at Bush’s perceived political strength, Florida may be in for another photo finish.
After all, this state just doesn’t seem suited for landslides.