Three weeks before the Nov. 6 general election, Linda Lingle and Mazie Hirono are still trying to convince voters they are the most able to work with the other party — even if they can’t get along with each other.

The candidates for Hawaii’s U.S. Senate seat met for their third of five debates Tuesday night, spending much of the hour tangling over who’s the most bipartisan — the same theme each has tried to own since before the primary.

At the beginning of the Civil Beat-KITV debate, Hirono even brought up Republican Alaska Rep. Don Young, whom she called “my good friend.” Young endorsed Hirono in the primary but this week abandoned her for Lingle.

Still, the debate broke little new ground. Viewers heard scripted responses on many familiar issues such as entitlements, Obamacare, tax breaks and Hirono’s congressional voting record.

Both candidates were on the attack, this meeting featuring a few more snippy exchanges compared to the last. But while Lingle was the clear winner in that matchup, Hirono kicked up her performance several notches Tuesday.

Much like Americans watching Tuesday’s presidential debate to see if President Barack Obama could bounce back from a bruising first debate against Republican challenger Mitt Romney, the question going into Hawaii’s Senate race was whether Lingle could deliver another victory.

Scoring well in these debates are crucial for Lingle because, in some ways, they’re Lingle’s only shot at changing the dynamic of this once-in-a-generation race.

The former governor is down in the polls. National interest in Lingle’s campaign has dropped off with mainland super PACs turning their attention to other races, presumably because Hirono has been deemed too hard to beat.

Even campaign finance numbers for the latest quarter weren’t flattering for Lingle. Although she’s ahead overall in fundraising, Hirono raised more money in the most recent quarter ending Sept. 30.

But it’s also crunch time for both candidates, with both campaigns running negative ads and putting out press releases that look a lot like hate mail.

On Tuesday night, Hirono managed to be more conversational than her opponent. She did a better job of not just addressing the moderators when answering questions. But Lingle still took control when it came to looking straight at the camera and smiling before every answer.

One of Lingle’s best moments came when she asked Hirono a question about local values, bringing up Hirono’s missed votes and .000 batting average when it comes to bills passed by Congress.

“How can you look our citizens in the eye and say that your poor attendance and lack of results reflect the local value of hard work?” Lingle asked.

But Hirono, who rarely referred to Lingle by name, had a sharp response.

“When we talk about not being around, why don’t we focus on the fact that when my opponent was very busy campaiging for McCain-Palin ticket in 2008 she was gone for cumulatively almost a month?” Hirono said. “In fact there was one two-week period where she was gone.”

When Hirono repeatedly characterized Lingle’s Medicare reform proposal as a voucher system, Lingle fought back, accusing the congresswoman of trying to use a “mean” fear tactic to compel seniors to vote for her.

On at least one occasion, Lingle did a good job of making Hirono sound uninformed. Answering a question about how to get the federal government to help Hawaii offset the cost of providing health care to Compact of Free Association migrants, Lingle dinged Hirono for going off topic and turned her answer into a lesson in what COFA is.  

Lingle didn’t spare Big Bird, either. When asked about whether she would support continued funding to public broadcast stations, Lingle said she thought everyone would agree that Sesame Street and the yellow avian aren’t essential to the economic health of the country.

Off camera, both candidates took notes in between questions. Hirono grimaced often during Lingle’s responses.

The candidates appear next on Thursday on PBS Hawaii and finally on Oct. 22 in a forum sponsored by Hawaii News Now and the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

About the Author