Sunday, October 5, 2003

Candidates pull punches in gubernatorial debate

HIGHLAND HEIGHTS - Just before last week's Northern Kentucky gubernatorial debate, Gateway Community College President Dr. Ed Hughes jokingly offered a bounty to the journalist who could work the school's name into a question posed to the candidates.

It was Democrat Ben Chandler who fulfilled Hughes' request - sort of.

In making a point about education achievements in the region, Chandler mistakenly said "Gatewood" rather than "Gateway." The gaffe brought a chuckle from the crowd of more than 1,000 who had packed into Regents Hall on Northern Kentucky University's campus.

Gatewood is, of course, Gatewood Galbraith, the perennial candidate who this year is running for attorney general.

Too bad a slip of the tongue was the most memorable moment of an event that had tons of potential but only ounces of excitement.

It was all too apparent that Chandler and his opponent, Republican Ernie Fletcher, are locked in a tight battle that polls show is basically dead even.

The pair debated like heavyweight fighters squaring off in a title fight.

They danced around each other, getting close in some verbal clinches but never really sparring.

That's sad, because the candidates really squandered an opponent to pick up some ground.

The rambunctious crowd was hungry for some red meat. Buses of supporters came in from down state. Hundreds of students showed up.

Legacy, the fledgling Northern Kentucky young professionals group, did a tremendous job promoting and crafting the debate, overcoming an early snub from Chandler to deliver a top-notch political event.

You could feel the excitement and energy as the debate was set to begin. Yet it was Chandler and Fletcher who deflated the balloon.

There's only about a month to go before Election Day. What better time to draw some blood than before a room packed with people ready to pounce on a good, partisan political attack?

Maybe the journalists on the panel - myself included - could have asked some better questions. But even when the candidates had the chance to go at one another, the encounters were timid.

Chandler stayed with his criticism of a vote Fletcher made on a federal prescription drug plan, a charge that Fletcher has been deft in addressing.

Fletcher tried to score with a charge that Chandler, the state's incumbent and two-term attorney general, has been lax in collecting child-support payments. But collecting back child support is not a duty overseen by the attorney general, according to state law.

Don't get me wrong. The candidates did hash out some issues, including gaming, how to best handle the state budget crisis and whether it's time for a change in Frankfort.

Chandler delivered a smart comeback after Fletcher went on his familiar diatribe of blasting Democratic "good ol' boys" in Frankfort and how Chandler is part of the problem rather than the solution.

"You seem to think I'm responsible for everything that happens in Frankfort. The next thing I'm going to hear is I caused Paul Patton to have the affair" with Tina Conner that doomed the incumbent governor's political career.

A funny line, a good debate - but hardly great.

E-mail Patrick Crowley interviews Kentucky Treasurer Adam Koenig this week on ICN6's "On the Record," which is broadcast daily on Insight Communications Channel 6.

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