The Projo’s Ed Fitzpatrick quotes both Tim White and me in his column today about the painfully scripted answers the gubernatorial candidates have been giving at their roughly 3,000 debates and forums. As you can see, the boys of WPRI are equal opportunity in our snark:
Because these gentlemen have participated in about 30 debates and candidate forums, and by now they’ve got their campaign spiels down cold. From what I’ve seen, it would take a stick of dynamite to knock them off their talking points.
I mean, Orr could ask them about North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s recent appearance at a military exercise with Kim Jong-un, his youngest son and heir apparent.
And within the space of a 60-second reply, independent candidate Lincoln D. Chafee would be offering his version of the ABCs (A is for Rhode Island’s assets, B is for the state budget, and C is for ending cronyism and corruption), and Democratic candidate Frank T. Caprio would be talking about Rhode Island families sitting at kitchen tables facing piles of bills.
“If you did a shot every time Frank Caprio uttered the phrase ‘kitchen table,’ you’d risk getting alcohol poisoning,” Ted Nesi wrote on WPRI.com. …
Caprio and Chafee are neck-and-neck in the polls, leading Republican John F. Robitaille and Block. So perhaps they want to play it safe and avoid gaffes. “They don’t want to put a bloody sock in their mouth,” [Tim] White said, referring to Chafee’s ill-advised swipe at Curt Schilling’s famous sock.
White said that as a moderator, it can be difficult to draw out unscripted answers, and Block stands out as “probably the most direct in answering the question with substance.” While repetition and staying on message have value, candidates can seem boxed in and less authentic when reciting rehearsed lines, he said.
I go back and forth on this issue. Scripted answers bug me as a reporter, since I’m hoping for something new to report and trying to get as clear an answer as possible to whatever question is at hand. But if I were advising the candidates, I’d probably tell them to stick to the script – going rogue risks causing a distraction by generating off-message headlines, as Chafee’s bloody sock comments did.
I’m not sure that advice would apply to debates, though. It’s one thing to stay careful when giving soundbites to a print or TV reporter, knowing you’ll only get a few words into the final piece – best to be careful, and who cares if you annoy some scribbler like me?
But during a 90-minute debate like the one we hosted last week, when more than 50,000 people are paying close attention to the candidates – many for the first time – scripted answers can sound inauthentic and weasely. And they don’t do much to elucidate how candidates would govern or how their approaches would differ.