Prepare for gold-medal bickering in first gubernatorial debate

Bill Bryant, left, and Gov. Jay Inslee

On Wednesday, right about the time beach volleyballer Kerri-Walsh Jennings hopes to be capturing gold in the Rio Olympics, the two men vying to be Washington’s next governor are scheduled to hold their first debate in Spokane.

The stage is being set for Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee and Republican Bill Bryant to square off for an hour at Spokane Falls Community College.

While those 60 minutes may not be as exciting as a gold medal beach volleyball match, they may provide an entertaining array of oratorical digs, kills and even a few aces. Fingers-crossed.

In preparing for debates, candidates are usually coached to “Do no harm” — to themselves, of course. That typically results in a strategy of providing stock answers and, wherever possible, redirecting attention to one’s opponent.

And the result is most debates are forgotten moments after they conclude.

This election cycle could be a bit different. The Donald, with his unending verbal taunts, made presidential debates must-see TV. Now there seems to be a degree of clamor for, and acceptance of, a bit rougher rhetoric among political combatants.

That could be good for Bryant. He finished a distant second to Inslee in the Aug. 2 primary and time is running out to make up ground.

This is a critical opportunity for Bryant to prove himself capable of matching wits with Inslee and becoming the first Republican elected governor in this state since John Spellman in 1980.

Bryant is not a flashy guy. He will need to leave his comfort zone and demonstrate a little fire to convince doubters in the GOP that he can upset the incumbent. Only then will Republican donors in Washington and around the country consider investing millions of dollars to try to get Bryant elected.

For Inslee, it is simply a chance to showcase his talents as a debater. He doesn’t need a dominating performance to show the Democratic Party’s winning streak is not at risk this fall. He just doesn’t want to mess up. Basically, he wants to avoid saying something that could be used against him in an ad campaign later on.

The potential pitfalls are much greater for Bryant.

He doesn’t want to endure a moment like Adm. William Stockdale had in 1992 when he was the running mate for independent presidential candidate Ross Perot.

It came at the start of the debate among the vice presidential candidates when Stockdale, in his introduction, said, “Who am I? Why am I here? I’m not a politician.”

Rather, Bryant would like to channel Ronald Reagan who routinely skewered opponents with his skillful repartee. And Reagan also delivered what has become the anthem of political challengers when, in a 1980 debate with President Jimmy Carter, he said to voters: “Ask yourself, ‘Are you better off now than you were four years ago?’”

Of course, Bryant is best served to come up with his own lines as he tries to keep the audience tuned in — and not checking their devices for the latest medal counts in Rio.

Political reporter Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; Twitter: @dospueblos.

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