In the third debate between Gov. Neil Abercrombie and state Sen. David Ige, the Democrats again disagreed about who deserves the most credit for the state’s fiscal health and who is to blame for botching the Hawaii Health Connector.

But the debate’s format, which featured the candidates sitting casually in chairs with Hawaii News Now’s Tannya Joaquin, gave the encounter the look of a talk show. The loose format also allowed the candidates to engage each other more directly.

And engage they did.

Ige and Abercrombie are seen on TV screen in PBS offices before CD 1 Debate in PBS Studio on July 10, 2014

Gov. Neil Abercrombie repeatedly tried to destabilize state Sen. David Ige in the final televised gubernatorial debate.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Abercrombie, who has much more debating experience than Ige, frequently turned questions Joaquin asked into opportunities to attack the state senator. The first volley came early, inspired by a recent newspaper report highlighting a lack of government oversight of care homes.

The governor used the issue to attack his challenger, without offering specifics. Abercrombie suggested that Ige, after 29 years in the Legislature, deserved some responsibility for the lack of oversight and he asserted that Ige did not fully understand the issue. The governor also accused Ige of denigrating hardworking public employees in the healthcare system.

Ige rejected those accusations and said that the real problem with care homes — and many other problems in the state — is a lack of leadership on the governor’s part.

Sen. Ige would not have called a special session on same-sex marriage.

The exchange established a pattern during the 60-minute forum: Joaquin asked a question that Abercrombie turned into an opportunity to criticize his opponent for criticizing others — even if the state senator had done nothing of the  sort — and then Ige gave his side of things.

That basic pattern ran through questioning about development in Kakaako, clean energy and the Public Utilities Commission, and continued on as the candidates addressed pay cuts for public workers, creating jobs and how to fix the state’s troubled prison system.

Abercrombie HNN debate

Hawaii News Now

The tactic made clear that the governor was quick to provoke Ige and perhaps score debate points, but it also served to show Ige as a more level-headed politician than Abercrombie.

In some cases, it worked in the governor’s favor, but sometimes not. Abercrombie, for example, forcefully defended his efforts to obtain funding for his much-vaunted statewide preschool program, even though he has fallen far short of his goals. Abercrombie said the Legislature, where Ige heads the Senate money committee, ignored the needs of 17,000 4-year-olds.

But Ige, the father of three, said the governor failed to find a way to fund the preschool program, which he said would cost $125 million. Abercrombie may have had the more passionate argument — who doesn’t care about the keiki? — but Ige underscored a key platform of his campaign: that the governor may have a lot of ideas, but he doesn’t think things through.

Gov. Abercrombie said the Hawaiian Kingdom no longer exists.

The governor was effective, however, when the topic shifted to the special legislative session for same-sex marriage that he called last fall. While Ige, who voted for the legislation that is now law, said he would have preferred to have taken the matter up during the regular 2014 session, Abercrombie said same-sex marriage was a matter of equality and that it needed to be decided as soon as possible. Whether you agree with the law or not, it certainly showed leadership on the governor’s part.

There were some news nuggets that emerged from the debate.

The governor, for example, answered a question about whether the Hawaiian Kingdom still exists. He initially tried to dodge the question — as Ige did — but Joaquin persisted. No, Abercrombie said, Hawaii is not still a kingdom.

Another: Did the governor go back on a promise to Irene Hirano Inouye to honor the last wish of Dan Inouye to appoint Colleen Hanabusa to take his place in the U.S. Senate after his death? Abercrombie said any conversation between him and Inouye’s widow would remain “between us.”

Ige HNN debate

Hawaii News Now

The governor reiterated that he feels comfortable with his selection of Brian Schatz instead, and that Inouye himself acknowledged that the decision was Abercrombie’s to make. But Ige said he’s heard from lots of folks who say they are disappointed that, after all the years of service from Inouye, the late senator’s “simple request” was ignored.

A third item: Abercrombie said he did not know who Paul Brewbaker was. The well-known and longtime economist was, until recently, chairman of the Council on Revenues, which releases fiscal projections on things like economic growth that guide the governor and the Legislature in budget deliberations. Hmmm.

The Hawaii News Now format, for all its strengths in facilitating a frank and vibrant exchange between the candidates, was by its nature difficult to control. So Abercrombie, without restrictions on time and with his penchant for answering questions on his own timetable, talked a lot more than Ige.

The debate, sponsored by Hawaii News Now and the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, was the last of three meetings between Ige and Abercrombie broadcast statewide.

Ige and Abercrombie are scheduled to take part in non-televised forums sponsored by AARP Hawaii July 18 in Kahului, Maui; July 28 in Hilo and July 29 in Kona on the Big Island; and Aug. 2 in Honolulu.

Both candidates are also expected to participate in a forum July 29 in Kona sponsored by the Kona-Kohala Chamber of Commerce.

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