I seldom think that anybody wins a televised political debate. Each party's spinmeisters claim victory for their candidate, and undecided voters who bother to tune in usually tune out without choosing one over the other.
In the case of last night's debate between Tommy Thompson and Tammy Baldwin, I can't claim neutrality, but I also don't look at the world as a partisan anymore. I've been thinking and writing a lot lately about the need for candidates to speak a language that resonates with independent voters.
I had some hopes that both candidates might do just that. In fact, I thought Tommy Thompson would do better at it, since he is the quintessential WisCONsin guy. Moreover, I like Tommy.
When Scott Walker got elected, I called Tommy up and enlisted him to try to help save high speed rail. He worked hard behind the scenes to do what he could, and I enjoyed our conversations. We even planned to get together for coffee one day, but that day turned out to be the first of the massive demonstrations against Walker on the Capitol Square.
But last night, the candidate who resonated with the middle was Tammy Baldwin. She started out on the attack and never let up, calling out Tommy for his work as a Washington lobbyist. Yet, she stayed cool and looked straight into the camera. And she didn't try to make some phony connection to Wisconsin voters by smiling all the time or dropping her g's or telling hokey stories. Tammy Baldwin didn't try to hide her intelligence. She spoke in complete English sentences. She came off as calm and smart, but not aloof or condescending. She looked and sounded like a United States Senator should: confident, informed, strong. And she came off as sincere.
Tammy didn't back down, equivocate, parse or apologize for being a liberal. She turned every one of Tommy's attacks into an opportunity to make a case for the middle class and then turn the attack back on him for having become a mouthpiece for drug companies and other special interests.
Tommy, on the other hand, was clearly angry, irritated, and flustered. Never what could be called an articulate guy, Tommy sputtered and stammered his way through the hour, showing his anger at every opportunity. Even for him, it was an awful performance. And this time, his destruction of the English language didn't come off as regular guy quaintness, but as sputtering bitterness. At the end of each question, he'd push himself back in his chair and his chin would retreat into his neck like a snapping turtle.
Tommy isn't used to running from behind with less money than his opponent. He's not handling this underdog role well.
There were some new Tommy classics. "I'm a private sector." "This is a stake in the ground and we have to stop it."
But the Tommy magic is gone. He now comes off as a frustrated, grumpy old guy who keeps talking about what he did in the 1990s. You might worry that that could work as well for Tommy as it did for Paul Soglin last year. But I don't think so. Tammy is a far better candidate and debater than the guy Soglin beat.
To be honest, when Tammy started this race I didn't think she had a chance. Last night made me a believer.