I was part of the online panel for The Des Moines Register last Thursday during the last of three debates held with the remaining Republican gubernatorial candidates.  Unfortunately the livestream available wasn’t cooperating with me, so I wanted to wait to comment until I watched the debate in full so I could do so intelligently (I hope).

First off I need to give props to The Des Moines Register and Iowa Public Television for the format and staging of this debate.  It was much, much better compared to the last major debate they held (2008 Republican Presidential Debate).

Secondly, though I have endorsed a candidate already in this race, Rod Roberts, I will try to be as objective as I can.

So I think it would be best to look at each candidate’s performance, and I will start with former Governor Terry Branstad.  In this debate you could definitely see a theme – experience, experience, experience.  You can not deny that is certainly his strong suit (can also be an Achilles heel as well).  He was the first candidate to go after current Governor Chet Culver, and did so several times throughout the debate.  When discussing incentives for businesses, you can see this is something that he has much experience with.  He gave several good specific answers, in particular, his answer regarding what regulation he would repeal he mentioned the regulation that doesn’t allow farmers to do their own wiring.  He said, “they should have to hire a union electrician to do that.”  He then went on to attack Culver and legislative Democrats on this issue, and mentioned he is a member of the Farm Bureau.

His answer about defunding Planned Parenthood was a welcome surprise, and he made a strong statement on life.  I thought that he handled attacks made by Bob Vander Plaats well, with the exception his remark about Joy Corning, “I think it’s unfortunate you would attack a Republican.”  It was a lame response, and a short time before that he accused Bob Vander Plaats of lying.

While Vander Plaats is taking some of Branstad’s record out-of-context, there were problems with his record that he can’t just dismiss as well, for instance, former State Auditor Dick Johnson’s criticism (it should be noted that Johnson endorsed Vander Plaats).  Also his unwillingness to encourage Iowans to vote no for Iowa Supreme Court justices is frustrating.  All in all, I feel it was a strong performance for Branstad.

Bob Vander Plaats was confident and aggressive.  He has made major strides on developing economic and business development plan since the start of his campaign, and he clearly communicated it.  He was strong on illegal immigration, life, marriage, and education.

Like I mentioned before his question of Branstad regarding his fiscal management was appropriate… “Why should Iowans trust you with their wallet again?”  Citing the state auditor during Branstad’s time in office is effective.  He has to establish the difference between Branstad and himself is necessary.

Where he fell flat was in his recollection of advice that Governor Branstad gave him.  First off, brining private conversations into a debate – not cool.  Secondly, using supposed advice to make the advice-giver look bad – not cool.  It was a political cheap shot and I thought Vander Plaats was supposed to be above that.  Then he didn’t even answer the question, which was “what has been the biggest political mistake you’ve ever made?”  He didn’t even answer the question, instead he attacked Branstad.

Then he’s saying… vote for me, I don’t have a record!!!!!  Not so fast.  I think there is an established record of his leadership, and it isn’t very appealing.

Bringing up Joy Corning once, ok… twice he’s going overboard.  It really seemed that he spent more time attacking Branstad than he did defining himself for those who are undecided.  The attacks fire up his base to be sure, but I don’t think it gains him any traction with the undecided.  Especially when Branstad did rebut his criticisms well with names, places, times and context when addressing items Vander Plaats brought up.

I also agree with Branstad that Vander Plaats is demonstrating a naiveté when it comes to judicial appointments. While I wish Branstad would be outspoken on the retention vote for judges, we have to recognize that we are looking at the situation on the court with hindsight.  Branstad didn’t have that available to him.  I can think of a popular conservative President who made a judicial appointment that I’m sure disappointed him as well.  President Ronald Reagan when he appointed Sandra Day O’Conner as she made decisions that he would have disagreed with.

Also nobody is mentioning that the judicial nomination committee, constitutionally provides the choice of candidate from which a Governor has to choose.  While the Governor appoints those people it’s still entirely possible that they could provide the Governor with choices that are bad and worse.  I know Deace and company would say – reject the choices… ok then.  The Constitution then says the Chief Justice makes the decision if an appointment is not made within 30 days.  Let’s be clear, abdicating the decision isn’t demonstrating leadership.

Then there is the whole case he’s making about providing a check on the judiciary with authority that he constitutionally doesn’t have.  It makes me uncomfortable even though I’d personally love to see somebody tell the Iowa Supreme Court to go fly a kite.  He just doesn’t have that authority given to him by Iowa’s Constitution.

With the fireworks between Branstad and Vander Plaats – Representative Roberts didn’t get as much air time.  That was unfortunate.  I believe he still represents the unity candidate, and he stuck to that them when he said, “the kind of dialogue we hear today is the kind of attitude and actions that Iowans say ‘we’re done with that, we don’t like that, we’re looking for someone who can lead’ someone who can look beyond personal issues and can share new ideas and a compelling vision of where Iowa ought to go.”

When he discussed regulations he demonstrated a firm grasp on issues that rural Iowans face.  When discussing spending cuts he gave amounts showing this is something he has researched and has a firm grasp on.  I think he won the question on what you can cut.  Not only did he say he’d cut Planned Parenthood funding – he knew how much it would save Iowa’s taxpayers.  His answer on marriage, judges and life was solid.  The only position that he took that surprised me was on the death penalty.  I didn’t realize he was against that.

He gave a solid performance, but was overshadowed by the Branstad-Vander Plaats fireworks.

All in all, I can’t say anyone “won.”  Branstad did do better than I expected.  Roberts was likely overshadowed enough he wasn’t much of a factor.  Vander Plaats I don’t think did anything that would help undecided voters.  A well-run debate, but not sure we really learned anything new.

But don’t take my word for it. Watch it yourself.

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