Do candidate debates make a difference in election outcomes? My guess is that, at best, they sway a few undecided voters here and there.

Unless there is a major blunder, à la Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s “oops” moment in the GOP presidential primaries in 2012, most folks have already made up their mind about who they are going to vote for.

Debates have a way, then, of reassuring voters that they’ll stick with their preferred candidate. That’s why incumbents and frontrunners tend to play things safe, while challengers and those trailing in the polls tend to try to rattle their opponent.

Brian Schatz, Colleen Hanabusa split screen

The leading candidates in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Which isn’t to say that debates are predictable or unimportant. One of U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa’s top arguments for her challenge to U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz is that Hawaii has not had the opportunity to decide who should fill out the remainder of the late Dan Inouye’s term.

Schatz was appointed by Gov. Neil Abercrombie over the wish of Inouye, who wanted Hanabusa. Schatz has now been the incumbent for more than a year and a half.

This race is very important. The winner will not only be just one of 100 senators but, given re-election rates and actuarial tables in Hawaii, this person is likely to win a full six-year term in 2016 and serve in the Senate for perhaps a generation.

At 9 p.m. Monday most Hawaii voters will have their first chance to actually see and hear from Schatz and Hanabusa as they debate the issues side by side. Civil Beat is partnering with KITV for the 60-minute forum.

Based on my coverage of the Senate candidates’ first two appearances — in Lihue on July 1 and in Hilo on July 2 — here’s a few observations about the debate styles of each candidate.

Waianae Girl Vs. Chop Suey Son-in-Law

Schatz is very well prepared to the point of sometimes coming off a bit too coached. He has his talking points down cold:

He begins every day in Washington thinking about the people back home. He cares mostly about helping the middle class — what he calls his North Star. He wants to enhance Social Security — “the most successful anti-poverty program in history” — which he will tell you delivers monthly checks averaging $1,400 to 200,000 people in Hawaii.

Here’s more from Schatz:

College should be affordable. Energy should be renewable. He lives in a multigenerational, multiethnic home. His in-laws ran a chop suey shop. He favors equal pay. He’ll take his values to Washington, where he has built relationships with lots of senators, whose names he will share easily, e.g., Dick Durbin. He’s chair of tourism and water subcommittees. Barack Obama is his buddy.

Hanabusa sometimes appears to have not prepared because, she thinks that knowing the issues so well, she doesn’t have to. Her talking points are less scripted:

Hawaii is a very special place. She’s a Waianae girl, which shaped her outlook and values. Her family ran a service station. Her mom sacrificed a lot for her. People trust her and naturally look toward her as a leader. She was the first woman to run the Hawaii state Senate and the first Asian-American woman to run a legislative chamber in the nation. She’s not afraid to take tough, politically incorrect votes, because it’s important to do what’s right.

Schatz is very well prepared to the point of sometimes coming off a bit too coached.

Here’s more from Hanabusa:

She has never wavered in her support for Social Security. She has built relationships across the aisle, something not easy for a “minority in the minority,” i.e., a Democrat and Asian female in a U.S. House controlled by Republican white males. She sits on the House Armed Services Committee. Support for the military is important. She wants to stay out of Iraq. She wants to pivot to Asia and the Pacific. Dan Inouye — “Senator” — continues to inspire her.

Each candidate has some quirks.

Schatz’s endless name-dropping of his Senate colleagues, for example, can be a bit much. He even mentions the Republicans, like Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, to show that he is able to work with people with whom he otherwise shares very little in common. (Inhofe, for example, thinks climate change is a hoax while Schatz was prominently endorsed by Al “An Inconvenient Turth” Gore.)

My take on all the name dropping is that Schatz wants voters to know that he is already on the job and a valued member of Club 100. There is no reason, then, for Hawaii to swap out one of its senators, even if Washington is perceived by most as a gridlocked town mired in partisan politics.

Hanabusa, meantime, has a habit of using acronyms. It’s one thing if those acronyms are commonplace, like NATO, or familiar to locals, like PACOM. (It stands for United States Pacific Command.)

But the practice of using acronyms can leave audiences confused,  as when Hanabusa used “PBARC” at the Hilo debate. It prompted debate moderator Sherry Bracken to ask her what it stood for — the Pacific Basin Agricultural Research Center in Hilo. Hanabusa had been at a rededication ceremony for the center that day, which now is called the Daniel K. Inouye U.S. Pacific Basin Agricultural Research Center.

Hanabusa sometimes appears to have not prepared because, she thinks that knowing the issues so well, she doesn’t have to.

Hanabusa also used another acronym several times during the Hilo debate: “DKI Highway.” It stands for Daniel K. Inouye Highway, the name a new segment of Saddle Road was given last year in honor of the senator. I don’t know if Big Isle folks are already using the shorthand, but Schatz himself stated the road’s full name during the debate.

To be fair, I have noticed that Hanabusa lately has been explaining what some acronyms stand for — such as DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). It certainly shows that Hanabusa knows a lot about government, but it can make it a little hard for some voters to connect with her.

One other observation: In both the Lihue and Hilo appearances, Schatz criticized Hanabusa several times for her positions. Hanabusa responded well, but it is interesting that Schatz, presumably the frontrunner based on polls and fundraising, decided to be the aggressor. Might Hanabusa try to catch Schatz off guard in the KITV debate?

There are just two more debates set for the leading candidates in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate: On July 15 with AARP Hawaii and KHON, and July 17 with the Honolulu Star-Advertiser and Hawaii News Now.

• Stay plugged in to campaigns and candidates this election season with Civil Beat’sHawaii Elections Guide 2014, your source for information on federal, state and local elections.



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