Ed Case did not wait terribly long to try and score debating points against Mazie Hirono at a candidate forum Tuesday on tourism.

The former congressman said the current congresswomen’s sponsorship of a piece of legislation called the VISIT USA Act, which is intended to spur overseas travel to the islands, had only six co-sponsors and had failed to move out of committee.

He said Hirono had waited until near the end of three two-year terms in Congress to push the bill.

“People need a senator that works all six years, not just in an election year,” he said.

Hirono was prepared.

Saying the act was supported by advocates for both business and labor, she asked members of the forum audience to raise their hands if they thought the VISIT USA Act was a bad bill.

“I see no hands,” said Hirono, triumphantly.

Mind you, the candidates were addressing the Hawaii Lodging & Tourism Association, a group predisposed to wanting more tourists in the islands.

But Hirono demonstrated she can handle Case, who trails badly in campaign fundraising, some polls (but not others) and support of hardcore Democrats who will vote in the Aug. 11 primary.

Supporters of both candidates could walk away feeling (mostly) good about the appearance, their first of five this season. I’d give Case the edge in argument and ideas, Hirono the edge in composure and message and Republican John Carroll points for getting big laughs.

Even with Carroll sharing the microphone — Linda Lingle declined to attend — the several dozen in attendance finally got a chance to size up Case and Hirono.

And, some good news: KITV live-streamed the forum and has posted several avenues in which to review it.

Meantime, here’s Civil Beat’s highlights.

I Repeat Myself

Hirono knows how to stay on message, but it can start to sound like empty repetition.

At the tourism forum, she once again launched into her stump speech on her mother — you know, the story about the courageous woman who grabbed the kids and fled an abusive husband in Japan.

“Thank goodness she picked Hawaii,” said Hirono, a line she has used again and again.

To be sure, that’s what politicians do — use lines that they test out and hone.

Hirono also showed that she knew her audience and sought to make sure they knew she understood tourism.

However, she mentioned the VISIT USA Act at least a half a dozen times — Case kept track — as well as her support for visa waivers for South Koreans and how she helped secure $6 million for Hawaii’s airports.

Several times she also noted that tourism is Hawaii’s No. 1 industry and that the nation has emerged from the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression … as if the tourism executives in the audience might somehow have forgotten.

Case repeats things, too, especially the name of his wife, Audrey, and that he has a specific agenda on his website to address how he’ll grow the economy and create jobs.

That he does, but, before a live audience, I’m not sure how many people will jump to the website to learn more. They want to hear the agenda right then and there, at least the quick takeaways.

Speaking of that economic agenda, the one that starts with “fixing Washington,” Case at one point brought up what he called “the four T’s” — tax reform, trade, technology … and “reeducation of many of our workers who are being displaced today.”

Maybe the last T stood for “today”?

Body Language

It’s a subjective thing, but Case seemed more uptight and Hirono more relaxed.

While both smiled, it was usually when John Carroll cracked a joke and not at what the other had to say.

Of course, there is a heck of a lot riding on the outcome of the race, including the careers of both politicians.

Case did seem to have more ideas about tourism than Hirono.

He said Hawaii needs to focus on developing others kinds of tourism, like eco- and ag-tourism, and other economic drivers, like the military. And he pointed out one of Hawaii tourism’s potential vulnerabilities: failing to reach out to new markets besides China, such as India and Russia.

Hirono spoke more conversationally and stressed her ability to work closely with the Hawaii delegation (not one of Case’s strong suits).

She also did a better job in painting a stark picture of the Republican opposition, and in trying to connect to working-class folks. It’s where the story of her mother helps her, as when she said she can relate to hotel workers struggling to just get by.

Both expressed support for the defunct Hawaii Superferry, with Hirono saying the Lingle administration blew it by not getting an environmental impact statement and heeding neighbor island concerns and Case saying that, as great as an opportunity as it was, bringing the Superferry back probably won’t happen.

Two other observations: Case sometimes appeared condescending toward Hirono, saying things like, “As Mazie pointed out correctly … ” and “Mazie accurately talked about …”

And Carroll several times mentioned his opposition to the Jones Act, the federal law that requires goods transported between U.S. ports be carried on U.S.-flag ships crewed by U.S. citizens.

The Democrats said nothing about the Jones Act. It was a missed opportunity for Hirono — who supports the act because it protects union jobs — and Case — who has opposed it because he says it drives up Hawaii’s cost of living.

OK, I’ll stop there.

Looking forward to the next four Hirono-Case appearances, forums, debates, whatevahs. Wish Linda Lingle would consider the same with John Carroll, too.

Track candidates and campaigns this year with our Hawaii Elections Guide 2012.

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