Gubernatorial debate didn’t offer much to sway undecided voters

Republican Rob McKenna’s campaign for governor isn’t what it used to be.

Neither is Democrat Jay Inslee’s, for that matter.

That’s why The Man of Many Plans (McKenna) is looking up at The Man of Many Platitudes (Inslee) in the latest statewide poll.

A year ago, McKenna’s well-oiled machine was running smoothly through 39 counties. Competing and winning twice as attorney general positioned him well entering this contest to fill the job opening as Washington’s chief executive.

Meanwhile, Inslee’s operation sputtered along in 2011. As he served in Congress and looked to get out, his team struggled to construct a foundation on which to wage battle in every corner of the state against a then-better-known opponent.

As a result, throughout last year and into the spring of 2012, McKenna consistently led Inslee in publicly released polls.

But here the fable of the tortoise and the hare is an instructive reminder of how such competitions are not over until the votes are counted.

Inslee has made up ground and eased past McKenna in recent voter surveys, putting the alpha males of their political parties on course to finish neck-and-neck in November.

This week’s Survey USA poll even has Inslee up by six points, and McKenna seemed to inject a bit of urgency into Tuesday night’s debate in Yakima.

This was their third debate and arguably the most important because it was the first televised live in Snohomish, King and Pierce counties, where most Washington voters live and in whose hands the outcome likely rests.

McKenna, more than Inslee, needed to shine.

Without holding his own in King County and capturing Pierce or Snohomish or both, McKenna cannot win — and end the Republican Party’s record-setting losing streak in gubernatorial races in this state. Tuesday provided an hourlong opportunity to show he’s a Republican that undecided and independent voters can trust at the helm of the state. McKenna needed to come off as confident, thoughtful and even-tempered.

Instead, McKenna spent valuable chunks of his time chiding, chastising and criticizing Inslee in a tone arcing between sarcastic and condescending.

Even in his one-minute closing statement, McKenna spent so much time ripping Inslee and other Democrats that he barely had time to hurriedly conclude that he, McKenna, would guide the state in a new direction.

As for Inslee, aside from health care and energy issues, he sounded as vague as ever on many issues — a sort of lightly filled though not altogether empty suit.

Inslee’s forte this campaign is less substance, more style. Clearly his strategy is to speak with optimism, not alarm, about the future of the state in hope of providing voters an attitudinal contrast with his opponent.

Inslee’s most important accomplishment Tuesday was he didn’t get flustered by McKenna’s digs, as he did when the two met in Vancouver. Had Inslee tried to exchange jabs with McKenna and slipped up, he risked squandering his current edge.

Tuesday was but an hour in an electoral marathon, and most undecided voters won’t pay attention until the two candidates are nearer the finish.

Political reporter Jerry Cornfield’s blog, The Petri Dish, is at www.heraldnet.com. Contact him at 360-352-8623 or jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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