A buddy and still occasional colleague of mine now living five time zones away watched the “Senate Showdown” between Ed Case and Mazie Hirono on Hawaii News Now Thursday evening.

Total political junkie that she is, she served up three tweets at the end of the 90-minute forum that captured several relevant points that I mostly share:

All issues aside, Case edges Hirono when it comes to debate skills. Imagine if Lingle were in the mix tonight.

Mahalo @HawaiiNewsNow. Smartly prepped and smoothly produced debate. Totally worth staying up late on the East Coast!

Lingle camp already rolling out statements about specific debate claims. Well-oiled machine, runs like a major national campaign.

Indeed, Linda Lingle‘s campaign for the U.S. Senate emailed out no less than four “Debate Fact Checks” as Democrats Hirono and Case went at it. It underscores that this race is just 16 days away from entering a new, and likely dramatic phase.

To differ just a bit with my East Coast bud, I think Lingle was very much in the mix Thursday night, especially for Hirono, who mentioned her directly several times and fellow Republican George W. Bush even more.

Even though the primary hasn’t been held yet, one gets the feeling that Hirono already has her eye on Nov. 6.

She had the luck to appear on a debate co-sponsored by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, which ran a new poll that very morning showing Hirono with double-digit leads over Case and Lingle.

(The Star-Advertiser will make its endorsement for the U.S. Senate Friday, and it’s going to translate into very good news for one of these three people.)

That follows another round of campaign finance reports that show Hirono at least in the game with Lingle while Case trails badly.

And, Hirono’s airing of a video showing Alaska Rep. Don Young — a Republican — endorsing her was the talk of D.C. that blunts Lingle’s efforts to make the bipartisan issue her own.

I give Case points for the debate, Hirono props for a great week and Lingle for doing her best to remind folks what’s coming next.

Collaborative Style v. Strong, Effective Leadership

If you have been following this election at all, you know that Hirono is promoting the first part of that headline and Case the second.

Same goes for “values” versus “a generation,” respectively.

“Mother” and “Audrey” too.

What was new in this debate — a debate that Hirono first opposed and then came to demand?

For one, I think it validated the need to have a 90-minute televised debate by respected news organizations.

Hawaii News Now and the Star-Advertiser kept things at a brisk but serious pace that drilled the candidates on important issues. Kudos to the reporters for pressing with followup questions, ones that seemed more often than not to catch Hirono lacking in direct answers.

Keoki Kerr, for example, wanted to hear specifics about how the congresswoman would do something different regarding passage of the Akaka bill or exactly how she would work with senators from other parties so adamant about ideology that they won’t compromise. Hirono fell back on her “collaborative style” bit.

Case tweaked Hirono several times for not directly answering questions, like whether she felt John Edwards was qualified to be president given that he voted to go to war in Iraq. She eventually said she did not regret her support of Edwards, but by then Case may have finally blunted a consistent Hirono attack about his initial support for that war.

But Hirono was very good at staying on message. She mentioned Case’s support for extending the Bush tax cuts or similar measures over and over and over. While some have criticized what they perceive as Hirono’s lackluster debate style — and I have been one of them — her three terms in Congress have toughened her and sharpened her presentation.

Still, Case finally seemed to come up with better responses to some of those attacks, explaining succinctly how votes in Congress are complicated and easy to distort. Case does not often go for soundbites; for example, he explained that he supports the part of President Obama’s proposed jobs plan that helps with infrastructure but not the part that he deemed a third stimulus package. Hirono embraces the president’s plan uncritically.

Whether a majority of voters will stay with Case long enough to hear his explanations remains a question. But so does whether they will accept simplistic but emotionally laden attacks from Hirono, such as charging that Case voted to defund Planned Parenthood because it was really a budgetary matter. Case’s main point — perhaps the main point of his campaign — is there won’t be any support for anything, including Planned Parenthood, unless the Washington budget mess is fixed.

Another example of soundbite versus specific: In light of the Colorado shootings, Hirono wants a “national conversation” on gun control and gun rights. But Case suggests that maybe there should be limits on access to automatic weapons. (Mind you, he also plugged his enthusiasm for hunting and target practice.)

Case also scored against Hirono when he asked her why she didn’t support the free trade agreement between the U.S. and South Korea, unlike the other members of Hawaii’s delegation. Hirono said she was worried about whether the agreement was fair and expressed concerns about currency speculation. It didn’t seem a satisfactory answer, given the shift of Hawaii and the nation toward the Asia-Pacific region.

Hirono, however, likely earned admiration from some voters when she voiced her opposition to the USA Patriot Act — Case supported its reauthorization — by tying it to the trampling of civil rights for Japanese Americans interned during World War II.

One other observation: I wrote down the words “fact check” in my notes numerous times during the debate. Civil Beat will check those out as well as the fact checks from Lingle’s camp come Friday morning to see if we can separate the “Mostly True” from the “Screaming Lie.”

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