Ron Johnson’s lack of political experience has no doubt been a huge plus for him against incumbent Sen. Russ Feingold. But that lack of experience showed in tonight’s debate. Feingold was every bit the cool, collected politician you’d expect him to be after nearly 30 years in government. Johnson spoke too fast, stumbled at times and jumped from point to point. Hard to fault him too much here, being the first live political debate of his lifetime.
(see liveblog transcript here).
Feingold calmly defended his votes on the stimulus and health-care reform, and played up the instances he has disagreed with President Obama. He actually tried to court Tea Party voters by touting his votes against TARP and the bank bailout. Feingold tried to localize the issues as much as possible (not without effect), while Johnson spoke more broadly about the need to set the country on right track. Johnson’s jabs at Feingold were appropriate, but not as effective as they could have been. He tried to make too many points at once. He missed an especially good opportunity — when Feingold (cleverly) pointed out that Johnson would be “one of 70 millionaires in Congress” — to counter by bringing up the number 57 (the number of lawyers in the Senate, including Feingold), which he does so effectively in this campaign ad. Johnson landed his best blow of the night after one of Feingold’s “I’m non-partisan” bloviations, when Johnson reminded voters of the completely partisan atmosphere that defined health-care negations, and Feingold’s vote for the bill. That should play well in Wisconsin, where a majority of voters want Obamacare repealed.
I can’t give either candidate the win. Feingold scores a few points for poise and preparedness, but I doubt that’s going to make a difference with voters. Feingold definitely had his weak moments, like when he accused Johnson, a business owner, of being “out of touch with Wisconsin businesses,” for not supporting the stimulus. As the polls continue to show, Johnson has a winning message. If he can get past his first-debate jitters and do a slightly better job communicating that message in the remaining two debates, he could really make a rout of this race.