Analysis: Cicilline, Doherty hold two debates on one stageOctober 16th, 2012 at 11:03 pm by Ted Nesi under Nesi's Notes, On the Main Site
Voters in Rhode Island’s 1st Congressional District watched two debates on Tuesday night: Brendan Doherty versus David Cicilline, and David Cicilline versus U.S. House Republicans. Which message will resonate?
Congressman Cicilline, the Democratic incumbent and the smoothest talker in Rhode Island politics, worked to bring every answer back to the policies of the House GOP majority and reminding voters of his longstanding support for core Democratic priorities – a potent appeal in a district that already elected him once and has gotten more Democratic since.
But Doherty, the former state police colonel, held his own and grew stronger as the 90-minute exchange wore on, displaying a familiarity with federal issues that was in stark contrast to his first major television interview, a botched appearance on Newsmakers last March. The Republican cast himself – if not his political party – as moderate and reasonable.
WPRI 12 political analyst Joe Fleming gave Cicilline “a slight edge” because he hammered his talking points more frequently – Fleming suggested Cicilline referenced House Republicans at least 30 times – but also said Doherty’s policy fluency beat expectations and he had a number of “good moments” where he challenged Cicilline. It was far more civilized and less personal than Cicilline’s bitter battle with Anthony Gemma in August.
A slight win or a draw isn’t bad for Cicilline, who leads in the polls, though he wasn’t always in his best form – he was less energetic than in past debates and relied heavily on a briefing binder he had with him on the podium. (Doherty had one, too.) Pressed about his misleading 2010 comments about Providence’s finances, Cicilline asked voters not to judge him on a single soundbite but sounded weary of the topic.
Doherty made Cicilline’s task tougher by forcefully and clearly putting distance between himself and the national GOP, expressing support for parts of President Obama’s health care law and opposition to Social Security privatization or moving Medicare to a voucher system. (The two even agreed on the potential benefits of lowering the corporate tax rate.) Doherty cast himself as the integrity candidate: “I’ll always tell you the truth.”
That forced Cicilline to make his pitch clearly and plainly: the only vote Brendan Doherty will cast that matters is the one that puts Republicans in control of Congress. “It’s not about Mr. Doherty – it’s not about me,” he said, adding later that even if Doherty supported some Democratic policies, “the people that he’ll keep in power don’t.”
That argument can be effective: Sheldon Whitehouse used it to defeat Lincoln Chafee in Rhode Island’s 2006 U.S. Senate race. And Doherty, like Chafee, countered that sending him instead would give local voters influence over the party in charge, and potentially help broker bipartisan compromises. “Republicans come up with good ideas,” he said. “So do Democrats.” Doherty also had a statesmanlike moment when he declined to make hay out of the Libya controversy.
There were moments when Doherty’s inexperience in debates showed. The Republican had some good lines – comparing Cicilline on Providence to a husband who drains the checking account but says he’s “a glass-half-full kind of guy” – but at other moments he stumbled as he tried to deliver what appeared to be scripted metaphors and zingers. Fleming said Doherty missed some opportunities to emphasize his main themes against Cicilline.
Cicilline may have summed the debate up best when he said the distinction between him and Doherty was about real differences between the two parties. “You don’t vote for the other team,” Cicilline said. Will voters agree?
Tim White contributed reporting.