Nonetheless, I've seen and read enough to take heart: Herseth Sandlin came out swinging, with exactly the aggressive style she needs to beat back the well-funded Republican attack machine operating behind the slogan-chantin' figurehead of Kristi Noem.
Where Noem began with the predictable reference to Al Franken and Nancy Pelosi, Herseth Sandlin responded by positioning herself against the big-spending tendencies of both parties and that obstructionism of John Boehner. Where Noem backpedaled and rode the fence on her own support for proposals to privatize Social Security*, Herseth Sandlin made her position against such Republican tomfoolery crystal clear. Where Noem whimpered about how bad the stimulus act was, Herseth Sandlin hammered the facts that Noem and the South Dakota Legislature gladly used that money to balance the budget, fund ethanol blender pump legislation, and avoid hard decisions.
One of Noem's big points, Arizona's immigration law, shows the misalignment of her priorities and the ease with which teabaggers get tied in knots. Noem shows her desire to Glenn-Beckify the race, talking about another state's policy that doesn't have much impact on South Dakota. Then she wraps her position in this contradiction:
"When we are sitting here in a recession and need dollars to go to our priorities, our priorities should not be our administration and our country suing our states when all they want to do is protect their people."
Oh, wait: so we shouldn't waste federal dollars on lawsuits to ensure that state laws don't violate the Constitution and individual rights (there's the line of attack Herseth Sandlin took), but it's great for states to expend hard-to-come-by tax dollars during a recession to challenge federal laws on the same grounds?
Sure, when Noem is just a pretty face in nice pictures from Texas, it's easy for voters to say, "Sure, I'll vote for her." But put her on the stage, pit her head to head with one of the smartest ladies in the state, and talk about the facts of Noem's partisanship and certain slavish submission to John Boehner and Michele Bachman (not to mention her farm-subsidized hypocrisy), and you'll see South Dakota voters run back to Herseth Sandlin's intelligent, South-Dakota-focused leadership in a hurry.
You can also tell Noem lost this first debate by the tenor of Republican response. Usually Republicans like being the aggressor. They like tough debating style, 1-2 punches and body checks against us wimpy Dukakis liberals who cling to our talking points. But let Stephanie Herseth Sandlin bring the heat and Noem remain stuck on her dull rehearsed lines, and suddenly Noem gets praise for being "mellow" and "on message" while Herseth Sandlin is "agitated" and "not the measured or scripted Stephanie we're used to." Check that, PP: that's the "measured and scripted Stephanie you were hoping for so you could offer your standard blog insults and portray Noem as the strong woman on stage.
Speaking of strength, alas, Independent candidate B. Thomas Marking has none. I agree: the undone necktie was an unnecessary distraction. You either wear it at full mast, or you bag it. And marking's debate tactics are terrible. He gave up valuable debate time, giving brief answers or worse totally ceding his allotted time. I always tell debaters to use every second they have. When I hear a kid at a debate tournament get up for an eight-minute constructive speech, deliver just one main point, and then bail out after just two minutes, that kid has probably torpedoed his team's chance of getting my vote, unless that one point is not just good but amazing.
When you're the third-party candidate, when you're guaranteed to get as little attention as the easily-confused mainstream media can get by with, you don't cede your rebuttal. You don't decline any opportunity to take the mic and talk to a bunch of voters at a fair or on the Web, especially those rare opportunities when you are sitting right next to the two big-name candidates and thus have the chance to show yourself every bit as smart and patriotic and ready for the job of Congressperson as they are. Failing to grab that easy opportunity makes me feel silly for having defended your right to participate in the big media debates.
I do note Marking appears to have shifted position again, saying now that he would treat the online referendum he'd set up as binding on his votes in Congress, not simply as advisory. In other words, Marking doesn't want us to vote for him; he wants us to vote for a computer.
*See Noem's online chat with RCJ's Kevin Woster, May 11, 2010 in which she endorses Rep. Paul Ryan's (R-Wisc.) budget proposal, which includes privatizing Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Care to limb back on the fence, Kristi?