Thursday, January 26, 2006

The Great Debate: A big Brady and Oberweis win.

I am not saying Brady would necessarily make a good Governor. But I believe he won the debate in terms of making inroads with voters who were watching and for now, many either decided...
The first of the Republican Primary Gubernatorial so called debates was held Wednesday night at North Central College in Naperville[broadcast live throughout the Chicago metro area and beyond on the local CBS station] and the topics were generally restricted to business issues, purportedly because the debate was sponsored by the Illinois and Naperville Area Chambers of Commerce, along with CBS 2 Chicago, the Naperville Sun, National Federation of Independent Businesses and North Central College.

It now looks like there will be four more of these Republican Primary Gubernatorial debates with all four candidates participating[assuming they all stay in the race], as current frontrunner Topinka has said she will do four more. Of course, what happens if Oberweis pulls ahead of the pack, will he decline to participate? I don't think so. Not his style.

If you watch the debate [or the tape] as the average citizen might, while doing a few other things and not taking notes, you can determine who the real winners were—in terms of attracting voters to one candidate, or the other. In that sense, State Senator Bill Brady [R-Bloomington] was the big winner. Pundits like me had been writing this guy off, saying he appeared to be in the race primarily to drain conservative votes from Oberweis and help Topinka.

That is, Senator Brady doesn’t really seem to have a downstate base, even though he is from there and he is a virtual unknown upstate. Also, not much liquid net worth to finance his campaign or many contributors to help him out. And, he doesn’t seem to have much support from his colleagues in the General Assembly. Finally, like Judy's Lt. Gov. running mate, Joe Birkett, Sen. Brady appears to be a Kjellander toady, fitting nicely into the Kjellander-Edgar-Topinka Combine conspiracy theory [Kjellander is an RNC Committeeman from Illinois, whose ethics are questioned by most Illinois Republican conservative activists].

But, overcoming all of the above, Brady had a big night[Perhaps coincidentally, Brady and Oberweis were the only two to show up at lunch for the City Club of Chicago debate, and both did well, there]. So, maybe the Kjellander-Edgar-Topinka Combine conspiracy is baseless. Maybe the guy is a player in his own right and maybe he can meet Oberweis’ ante and raise him a million or two. Outside of his anti-voucher views, Brady is a pretty consistent social conservative, and like Oberweis, he took the tax pledge easily.

On Wednesday night, Brady was the John McCain straight-talking express. Spoke well about abolishing the State Board of Education [which is everybody’s favorite bureaucracy target, including Blago’s] and creating a business climate that would attract employers which would create jobs and health insurance for low and middle income people through the private, not government, sector. All of this is a big hit with Republican primary voters. Moreover, he said it well. It sounded like he know what he was talking about and he looked good—really, this guy is no Jack Ryan when he it comes to looks, but he will pick up some female voters on that alone.

Brady showed a good sense of humor and some apparent spontaneity by positioning himself between Topinka [too much experience] and Gidwitz [too little], calling himself, with a big smile, the Goldilocks candidate—just “the right amount,” of experience. A virtuoso performance.

I am not saying Brady would necessarily make a good Governor. But I believe he won the debate in terms of making inroads with voters who were watching and for now, many either decided they were leaning to vote for him or to keep looking him over.

A close second, in terms of being a winner tonight, was Jim Oberweis. And, I think Jim did well. It was just that Brady had to come from further down on the ladder than Jim, and Brady did. Nevertheless, Oberweis did well. He hammered on the reform message consistently and did it well on education [merit pay], corruption [likened himself to Patrick Fitzgerald- both independent outsiders?] and even on immigration, got perhaps the biggest round of applause of the night when he hammered the Governor for subsidizing mortgages for illegal immigrants [he argued the subsidized interests rates were better than what the government offers veterans].

Oberweis’ one mistake was when Brady took a good shot at Oberweis for as Brady said, “trying to round up illegal immigrants from a helicopter.” Jim tried to shout back that “we all know that is not a good idea,” or something like that. It would have been a good line for Jim [conceding that the helicopter ad, if not the concept, was a bad idea]. However, the mike wasn’t turned on, making Jim sound like he was talking out of turn.

At any debate, the candidates need to know the rules. If the mike is off when it is not your turn, either don’t say anything until it is your turn, or shout it really loud. In political debates, it is often not what you say but how you say it, or how you don’t, that counts.

Topinka was a distant third. Part of that was inevitable. When the frontrunner steps out on the stage with all of her challengers, in a live, 6:00 pm broadcast, throughout all of Metro Chicago, and beyond, that’s a loss right there. Suddenly, the challengers are all equal to the frontrunner, at least for the first five minutes. And, Topinka probably had to do this, so I am not faulting her or her handlers.

But, then, as Flannery pointed out in his 10:00 pm CBS-2 News analysis, she didn’t demonstrate the kind of debating skills and knowledge voters expect from someone who has been touted as holding statewide office for twelve years. It sounded as if both Brady and Oberweis had a better handle on job creation, taxes, education, health care, immigration—you name it—than Topinka. Further, she either often stopped speaking with time remaining, or maybe it just seemed that way. In other words, it sounded as if she had more time than she did ideas or answers. Not good.

And, a really distant last was Ron Gidwitz. Anybody who has spent time with Ron knows he is a terribly nice, intelligent and accomplished person who has helped the State GOP as a tireless fund raiser for Republican candidates of all stripes. But, like State GOP Chairman Andy McKenna, Jr. who also flopped badly as a U. S. Senate primary candidate in 2004 [spending about five million dollars for about eighty thousand votes and a fourth place finish out of four serious candidates], Ron appears to have no business getting into this line of work—running for an elected office.

Gidwitz has been working at public speaking, etc. for a few years, practicing in a variety of venues, e.g., City Club of Chicago, promoting and developing his Students First organization and foundation, etc. And, he was getting better, marked improvement. He was on my show a number of times and I could see the improvement.

But, at the Wednesday night debate and in a few prior appearance on this campaign trail, he seems to be getting worse. Even his running mate, Rauschenberger, at the end of a recent joint press conference, cracked, “when you average us out, a guy whose hair is on fire [Rauschenberger] and a guy who is a little bit stiff [Gidwitz], we’re Okay.“ No, Steve, not okay. You can’t have a stiff running for Governor.

A reliable source told me that Gidwitz skipped the City Club of Chicago debate at lunch on Wednesday so that he could use the time to prep for the Naperville debate. If so, that was a really dumb idea. And, if any handler or confidant told him to do that, that person should be fired summarily. If anything, Ron should have been told to go to the City Club of Chicago debate to warm up for Wednesday night's gala, to practice his stuff, in front of a live audience.

You can’t mock up a live audience. You need a live audience to practice for a big debate. There were only a hundred people, or so, at the City Club of Chicago lunch, a few cameras and a few reporters. Just what you need for a warm-up. A real event, but lacking the hype of Wednesday evening’s debate. Go there and practice. Go for a walk. Discuss a movie. Hell, go to a movie. What were they thinking?

A few of Ron’s lines from the Debate: We need to have more taxpayers paying taxes as opposed to more taxes. We need to balance the needs of plaintiffs against the needs of defendants [for tort reform]. We need to prioritize our budget items. I know what Ron means by these statements. And, he might be right on each. But, I doubt very many people watching on TV knew what he meant. And, even if they did, nobody will vote for him for that kind of stuff. And, most importantly, his delivery was way, way off. Stammering, no rhythm, cracking voice.

So, in sum. A great night for Brady. A good night for Oberweis. Both of their campaigns pick up steam. Topinka treads water. She doesn’t want to continue on tonight’s path. That, I can tell you.

Gidwitz? Either the candidate can’t do it, or he has the wrong team. He needs to radically transform himself or change his team, drastically and pronto. Or, cut his losses. Financially, and to his ego. Get out quickly and sign up with one of the other teams. And, don’t blame me. I don’t make the rules. I just call them as I see them, to quote my favorite sportscaster.
Jeff Berkowitz, Show Host/Producer of "Public Affairs," and Executive Legal Recruiter doing legal search can be reached at