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Observers say Brewer the winner in first debate

Gov. Jan Brewer

Gov. Jan Brewer

She may not have done it in the most grammatically correct way, but Capitol observers are calling the first debate between Republican gubernatorial hopefuls a win for incumbent Jan Brewer.

Brewer didn’t necessarily gain much ground against state Treasurer Dean Martin or northern Arizona businessman Buz Mills, said Republican consultant Chip Scutari. But she didn’t have to land any knockout punches, he said. She just had to make sure she didn’t get hit with one herself, he said.

“I would say she’s the winner in this sense – no one knocked her out with a haymaker and no one really opened up a wound or landed any good punches,” said Scutari, of the firm Scutari & Cieslak Public Relations.

To win the debate, all Brewer had to do was walk away without doing or saying anything that could damage her campaign, said Kurt Davis, a Republican consultant with the firm FirstStrategic.

“She’s the frontrunner, and everybody, in essence, is trying to take her down a notch,” said Davis, a former deputy chief of staff to Gov. Fife Symington. “Being able to handle fire from every direction on virtually every question is very difficult.”

Pollster Michael O’Neil, of the firm O’Neil Associates said Martin and Mills didn’t do anything that would hamper their campaigns either. But for candidates who are trying to unseat an incumbent, that’s not good enough, he said.

“I think what matters is what didn’t happen.Nnobody, particilarly the governor, said anything that could subsequently be used against her,” O’Neil said. “I think if you’re the frontrunner that’s true. I think if you’re not the frontrunner, that’s not good enough. You only get so many bites at that apple.”

Earl de Berge, a pollster with the firm Behavior Research Center, wasn’t quite as confident that Mills left unscathed, and he probably came off looking the worst. When Brewer responded to Mills’ criticism of her budget plan, and the tax increase it relied on, by challenging him to release a plan of his own, Mills said, “That’s your job, not mine.”

Voters are looking for candidates with ideas, de Berge said, and Mills’ response left the impression that he doesn’t have any.

“He just really got creamed by the governor – no plan, didn’t offer very much, kept in on the negatives all the way through. And I think the governor counter-pointed him very effectively. I’m not certain that he gained anything in that debate at all,” de Berge said.

Dave Cieslak, Scutari’s Democratic counterpart at Scutari & Cieslak, said Mills lacked ideas, and the piles of paperwork he kept in front of him made him look unprepared.

“He was looking to the point where it was distracting,” Cieslak said. “Even though she had grammar problems, Brewer at least was speaking from the heart and was actually able to communicate with the TV viewers. Buz just looked like he was a kid prepping for a test.”

Martin made some salient points and put forth some good ideas, Scutari said. But Martin’s habit of “delving into the minutaie” of the state budget and other issues won’t resonate with most voters.

“It’s kind of like public policy on steroids, and a lot of people don’t relate to that. They want bold, fresh ideas,” Scutari said.

Public relations consultant Jason Rose said Martin showed a command of the issues facing the state, but didn’t defend himself well from Brewer’s jabs. One of Brewer’s more memorable one-liners came after she criticized Martin for voting for several of former Gov. Janet Napolitano’s budgets while he was in the Senate, telling Martin, “You’re not part of the solution, Dean. You’re part of the problem.”

“There’s no question he has the intellectual heft to be governor. But I thought he was hurt by some of the counter-punching by Gov. Brewer,” Rose said.

Davis said Martin’s grasp of financial matters is clear, but as a candidate for governor his articulation also raises the risk of flying “over the heads” of the general public.

“He can take an issue and come across as being highly informed. He’s really good at that. But at the same time that can lose contact with the voters if it comes across as too professorial. His strength is also his weakness,” he said.

The most common criticism of Brewer’s performance was the governor’s myriad grammatical errors. For example, during a discussion of the budget and the $2.2 billion in cuts she boasted of, Brewer said, “We have did tremendous cutting.”

“She made George Bush look like William Buckley last night. We can spin that as blue-collar charm, but at some point we’ve got to go back to English remediation classes. We’ve had a great debate in this state about English as a second language, I just didn’t think Gov. Brewer was going to be in that debate,” Rose quipped.

Scutari, however, said he doesn’t think Brewer’s many verbal gaffes will hurt her in the campaign, and said it may actually endear her to many voters. Like Rose, Scutari invoked gramatically challenged former President George W. Bush.

“People overlooked his gaffes because they thought he would be a good guy to get a beer with,” Scutari said of Bush. “I think the No. 1 thing people look at is whether a politician is likeable and honest. And I think they would be willing to forgive her grammatical lapses because she’s a likeable, honest person.”

The fourth candidate, self-described moderate Matthew Jette, got people’s attention, but primarily for taking stances that most people associate with the Democratic Party. Jette, a former sales rep for the pharmaceutical company Merck, opposed Arizona’s strict new illegal immigration law, criticized his opponents for supporting tax cuts and said the state should close underperforming charter schools.

“I like that Jette guy, but I think Brewer took the night,” Cieslak said.

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