People aren't going to want to hear this, I know, and even before the debate aired today, the Dok Harris campaign put out a statement asserting that Harris "came out of the gates strong." But I have to score today's KDKA-TV debate as a convincing win by Mayor Luke Ravenstahl.
Obviously, in these situations an incumbent wins just by not losing. As long as you don't projectile-vomit onstage, or admit to a major ethical lapse, you're probably going to be OK. But Raventahl wasn't just playing defense.
Don't get me wrong: Independent challengers Dok Harris and Kevin Acklin did fine, even if Acklin did look a bit nervous. Harris got a football reference into his first answer, and Acklin got a reference to doorknocking in his. (I also counted at least three references to Beechview during the course of his debate: Acklin's campaign has focused heavily on the South Hills.) But for the most part, the sharpest barbs were directed at the challengers, not the incumbent.
Partly that's becuase the two challengers went after each other quite a bit -- a strategy I've questioned before. But it's not just Harris and Acklin's fault. Co-moderators Ken Rice and Jon Delano had some sharp policy-related questions for Ravenstahl -- about his proposal to tax college students and hospitals, for example. But on personal "character" issues, the toughest questions were for his rivals.
Didn't use to be that way. Just two years ago, there were all sorts of questions surrounding Ravenstahl and his antics. There were shadowy trips to New York, trips to see Toby Keith in Homeland Security vehicles, and so on. But you don't see that kind of headline so much anymore. And this time around, the challengers were the ones facing questions.
Acklin had to address his previous support for Republicans like Rick Santorum, and Harris had to address questions about whether he was running on his father's name, and whether he met the city's residency requirement. That stuff came up in the first half hour, which makes you wonder how large of an audience saw anything else.
Not that these questions could have been a surprise. Acklin has had to address his party registration already. And the Harris residency issue had been the subject of a press conference yesterday morning -- shortly before the show was taped. As has been established elsewhere, it's a pretty meaningless issue, but it led to the sharpest exchange of the hour-long debate. (Hear the excerpt here.)
Ravenstahl, by contrast, had to deal with some G-20 fallout questions, but he was prepared for those too. Harris and Acklin faulted Ravenstahl for urging Downtown business owners to stay open and then shutting Downtown. Ravenstahl acknowledged that Downtown was a "ghost town," but then contended that any short-term business loss would be more than offset over the long-term by increased convention activity as a result of hosting the international summit.
Ravenstahl then turned the topic around on his challengers and asked them if they'd have passed up the G-20. (An excerpt here.)
Acklin and Harris did their best to take on Ravenstahl: Given a chance to direct a question at Ravenstahl toward the program's end, Acklin asked Ravenstahl about the role played by Ed Grattan and John Verbanac in his administration. Grattan and Verbanac -- the latter once describe as the "ultimate political insider" -- are exactly the kind of shadowy figures the blogosphere gets excited by. But here's the thiing about political insiders: Only other political insiders really know who they are. I guarantee that most of the (miniscule) audience watching this thing said, "John who?"
In any case, Ravenstahl brushed off the allegation, characterizing Verbanac and Grattan as friends with no formal role in the administration. You've got to figure that Acklin is going to do make a campaign issue with this stuff. Because otherwise Acklin, an attorney, violated the most basic rule of cross-examination: Never ask a question unless you're sure you know what the answer will be.
Even if Acklin does have the goods, he better hurry. The hour, it groweth late.