Debate analysis: Rossi comes alive in second debate with Murray

Patty Murray 1, Dino Rossi 1.

That’s how my scorecard reads after watching two televised one-hour debates on two nights between the Democratic senator and her Republican challenger.

Rossi hit on all cylinders Sunday night in Seattle after a performance that barely got out of first gear Thursday in Spokane.

Murray, who roared along effortlessly Thursday, chugged along Sunday, treating most questions like they were speed bumps.

Their time together won’t reshape strategies in the final two weeks of this campaign. In the end, it may help truly undecided voters — assuming they tuned in — conclude which person they want to go to Washington, D.C., and help steer the country out of the mess it’s in.

Though not always artful, Murray and Rossi each accomplished what they set out to do.

She wanted to re-establish in voters’ minds the “mom in tennis shoes” personality that helped her become the first woman in the U.S. Senate from this state.

She needed to avoid coming off as a D.C. power broker hell-bent on an agenda and insensitive to frustration it has caused among the populace.

And she hoped to conjure favorable images of the trillion-dollar stimulus, the bank bailout bill and federal health care reforms — to turn them into stories of personal triumph for residents and businesses and communities throughout Washington.

Thursday in Spokane she did all of that. Come Sunday in Seattle, almost no stories at all. For example, Thursday’s tale of a woman with a pile of paperwork and no health care until the new law passed didn’t reappear in Sunday’s debate.

Murray controlled the flow of energy Thursday, jabbing at Rossi by saying repeatedly, “I don’t hear an answer,” in comments he made — echoes of Ronald Reagan’s memorable, “There you go again,” while debating President Jimmy Carter in 1980. Sunday, Murray seemed on her heels responding to Rossi’s all-too-familiar rhetoric.

For Rossi, the debates offered a useful opportunity to share a statewide stage with Murray.

He wanted to avoid embarrassing gaffes and colossal blunders, to present himself as a viable alternative to an incumbent seeking a fourth six-year term.

And Rossi desired to hammer home a singular point for those undecided voters: Murray is not that “mom” anymore but an insider who says one thing in this state and does another in Washington, D.C. The charge that her votes are bankrupting America was one of his choruses.

Thursday, though, was not a stellar performance for Rossi. He debated better in two losing campaigns for governor, usually by displaying a knack for wrapping humor around a bale of facts.

Against Murray in Round One, Rossi seemed to lack an understanding of several issues or control of his own facts. At times he searched for the end of a sentence and completion of a thought. He went the whole hour Thursday without ever mentioning one of his favorite targets: earmarks.

On Sunday, he went on the offensive with a level of energy completely absent Thursday. He used each question as a springboard to launch another rhetorical punch. He’s a salesman who on Thursday didn’t know his product then on Sunday sold it with a pent-up frustration bordering on anger.

He worked expertly from the playbook delivered to him in May and used by Republican challengers around the country this year. As for earmarks, he blasted Murray’s pursuit of them several times.

It was the Dino Rossi that Patty Murray expected Thursday and then didn’t seem prepared to encounter Sunday.

Two out of three, anyone?

Political reporter Jerry Cornfield’s blog, The Petri Dish, is at Contact him at 360-352-8623 or

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