Charles Djou says Colleen Hanabusa is a “rubber stamp.”

He said it again and again in Tuesday night’s televised debate put on by Hawaii News Now and the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. Just like he told us again and again and in so many different ways that he’s “independent.”

Which would you rather vote for: A rubber stamp or an independent person?

On the surface, advantage Djou.

The former Honolulu City Councilman, who won the special election in May and is now trying to hold onto Democratic governor candidate Neil Abercrombie‘s old seat, presented a sharper message, both about himself and about his opponent.

It started in his opening statement, when he said the state needs a congressman who’s “something more than a rubber stamp.” For good measure, near the end of the 90-minute program, he made sure his words had sunk in, telling the audience — as if it needed reminding — that we can’t “afford a congressman who will go to Washington, D.C., and rubber stamp all these failed policies,” referring to the economic program of the Obama administration and Democratic Congress he’d been bashing all night.

Hanabusa can take care of herself. She didn’t get to be the first woman Senate president in Hawaii without being able to take — or give — a few good jabs. She painted her Republican opponent into a corner a few times Tuesday night, especially when she honed in on how a congressman who spends so much time talking about fiscal responsibility could have sent out four fliers to the homes in his district on the taxpayers’ dime in just 23 days. Djou helpfully explained that he had “no apologies whatsoever for not forgetting that the people of Hawaii are my boss.” (I didn’t know I was supposed to send regular notes to my boss. I wonder if he’ll pay for them, too.)

There’s no question that Djou is a candidate who can talk about himself (and his family and his Army Reserve service) more easily than Hanabusa seems to be able or willing to share personal details. Until she introduced a cute young girl in the audience at the end of the night, the way a president introduces an inspirational figure at a State of the Union speech, she really didn’t exploit the warmth of her personal story.

There’s also no question that Djou is good at staying on point. By the end of the night, it was clear that there wasn’t a tax increase he could support. He’s against estate taxes for the super wealthy or anybody feeling the bite of the Bush tax cuts going away, including the top 2 percent of earners. It’s party time for everybody on the tax side in the Djou camp. But forget about spending.

Hanabusa, on the other hand, seemed to be still searching for how she would define the election and her opponent. She ran out of time delivering her timed opening statement. She talked a lot about the Hawaii we love, and occasionally got around to reminding the audience that “we’re not a place to say no to those in need.” That was her — much less pointed — way of telling voters that Djou is an expert at saying no, even when real people get hurt.

Meanwhile, Djou drew a word picture of Hanabusa as somebody “comfortable raising taxes,” somebody “comfortable” with a 6.7 percent jobless rate, somebody “comfortable” taking money from the poorest of the poor. The Democrat painted as fat cat.

In an election year that’s about the feelings voters have about the state of the country — maybe they all are — residents of the 1st Congressional District have a clear choice. Djou is good at making it seem simple. He’s a husband, an Army Reserve officer, a father, independent. Did I mention independent? He’s all about fiscal responsibilty, as he said in so many different ways.

In rebutting her response to his question about whether she had voted no on any tax increases, he said, “What Colleen isn’t telling you is that she has voted yes to everything.”

Hanabusa on the other hand can make things seem complicated. In justifying her yes votes, she tries to explain the legislative process and how only a small percentage of bills ever make it to a final vote, which is why, as Senate president, she can vote Aye. But does the public really buy that?

Hanabusa began the evening by acknowledging that “across the nation anger against government is high and public confidence in government is also very shaky.”

She puts the blame for our troubles on the Bush tax cuts and the two wars he got us into as president: Iraq and Afghanistan. And she reminds voters every chance she can get that “Hawaii comes first.”

She’s banking on a majority of voters in Democratic-dominated Hawaii feeling the same way.

Two weeks from election day, Djou better captures the anger that we’re seeing across the land, anger that could tip the balance in at least one of the chambers of Congress.

What we don’t know is how strong the tide will be here. Our Civil Beat poll shows the race close, with Hanabusa with a slight edge.

She’s tied to her party and the president, for better or for worse.


He makes it clear that he’s “not satisfied.” And he’s banking that enough voters feel the same way.

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