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There is energy at a live political debate in front of an audience that infuses the candidates with greater urgency and adds a degree of drama that does not exist in sterile studio affairs or debates held before handpicked audiences. Yet if the terrible audience behavior seen at the recent Senate debate in New London becomes a trend, future U.S. Senate and gubernatorial candidates may choose to keep crowds out of the debate equation.
In the carefully scripted modern campaign, candidates desire control and fear the unexpected. The loutish behavior witnessed at the Garde Arts Center during the Senate debate last Monday is something most candidates would just as soon avoid.
Up until the catcalls began, it was a great night for democracy in the city. Sign-holding supporters for Republican Linda McMahon and Democrat Chris Murphy lined the streets around the Garde, exchanging competing chants and loudspeaker retorts. After weeks of TV attack ads and mailings, it was great to see some red-blooded, rather than Madison Avenue-marketed politics.
Some marketing, however, may have been involved. There was speculation that many of Mrs. McMahon's youthful backers, arriving by bus, were perhaps compensated for their appearance at the demonstration and the debate that followed. As of this writing, the McMahon campaign wasn't commenting.
I had a great seat for the debate itself, on the stage asking questions along with WTNH's Chief Political Correspondent Mark Davis. In my opinion, Murphy was clearly the better debater. He saw openings seized on them and had a thorough grasp of the issues. Conversely McMahon struggled when forced outside her primary talking point - her six-point plan for cutting taxes and growing jobs. At times she had difficultly filling the 90 seconds allotted for rebuttal, a time limit candidates typically have trouble with because it is too brief to discuss complex issues.
On one question I challenged Rep. Murphy about his liberal voting record, contrasting that with the moderate voting record of retiring Sen. Joe Lieberman. Murphy defended his record, said he would reach across the aisle, as does Lieberman, and then pivoted to Social Security. McMahon took the bait, arguing in her rebuttal about Social Security but never getting back to Murphy's liberal voting record and missing the chance to describe herself as the true moderate successor to Lieberman.
This inability to see opportunities continued throughout the debate, most tellingly in McMahon's failure to bring up Murphy's votes against defense bills that included funding for submarine construction at nearby Electric Boat. Ironically, proximity to EB and the jobs' issue was the major reason the McMahon campaign was eager to hold one of the debates in this area.
By any measure, it was a bad night for the Republican.
But most will remember the night for the misbehaving audience, the worst The Day has seen in its many years of holding debates at the Garde. As with all past debates, the moderator asked the audience to be respectful and withhold applause or any outbursts until the debated ended. With my back to the audience, I could not see what was going on in the darkened theater, but I sure could hear it. It started with McMahon supporters. Groans, jeers and boos greeted Murphy when he made a point or claim they did not agree with. McMahon received applause.
Murphy supporters, not about to let their candidate be hung out to dry, started acting out as well. Despite the repeated efforts of WTNH Anchor Darren Kramer to ask for quiet, the outbursts continued throughout the debate.
There was speculation, and outright charges on the part of Murphy, that the McMahon campaign welcomed and perhaps orchestrated the outbursts to throw Murphy off his game and distract from the content of the debate, a charge the McMahon campaign flatly denied. In an act of statesmanship (womanship?), McMahon could have helped matters when the shouting started by asking her supporters to be respectful.
If there was any intent, it backfired. Rather than burnish her image as senatorial, her supporter's ugly behavior were a reminder of McMahon's lowbrow professional wrestling roots with its snarling audiences. More practically, because of the interruptions time ran out on the hour-long program, cutting off McMahon's closing comments during the telecast (though you can still see the entire debate uninterrupted on theday.com).
This brings me back to my first point. Will candidates in future races fear using the Garde and other public venues? Of the four Senate debates this was the most accessible to "the people." The first debate took place in a TV news studio with no audience, the second at Jorgenson Center for the Performing Arts on the remote UConn Storrs campus, and the last at the Connecticut Broadcasters Association annual convention in Hartford, the event restricted to convention goers.
We shall see. One event does not make a trend. Perhaps the outbursts were only the McMahon influence and future audiences will not repeat them. These major, televised debates at the Garde are great for New London and for the public. It would be a shame if a few louts ruined that.
Paul Choiniere is editorial page editor.