Mazie Hirono, the Democrat, talked a lot about Republicans while Linda Lingle, the Republican, said very little about either party in the first of five debates in their U.S. Senate race.

The strategy seemed clear.

Hirono, the U.S. representative, believes voters will reject Lingle, the former governor, if they think she’s in the tank with Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan and company. For her part, Lingle wants to be seen as independent of political parties and putting the interests of Hawaii first.

Lingle also aims to paint Hirono as fuzzy on the facts and lacking a record of accomplishment. But Hirono thinks Lingle gets her facts wrong, too, and campaign spokesperson Kinsey Kiriakos emailed out no less than seven “fact checks” during the course of the debate. (They’re posted on Hirono’s campaign website.)

The debate audience at the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii in Moiliili, which sponsored the debate, seemed roughly divided in support for the candidates. There was also a lot of applause, whoops and shouts of “Good answer!” for both candidates, though debate rules did not permit them.

No matter. It was a pretty healthy exchange and a good demonstration of the contrasts of these two candidates, and the winner of the contest will be the first female U.S. senator from Hawaii.

It also portends that the campaign ahead may well center on factual accuracy — which has its potential benefits and pitfalls for voters.

Fact Check City

It was the first time Hirono and Lingle had appeared together in this election; voters will have to wait until next month to seem them again, when four televised debates are scheduled.

Hirono wore red, Lingle wore blue. Hirono also wore glasses, which she doesn’t often do in public. Lingle, of course, always wears glasses.

Lingle’s campaign pitch is that she was an effective governor in a state dominated by Democrats. The nation’s in fiscal crisis with a national debt now at $16 trillion. The folks in Washington can’t fix things because they are the ones responsible for the problems. Lingle will be a leader, not a rubber stamp.

Hirono’s pitch — the same one she made during her primary race against Ed Case — is that Republicans don’t share the values of people in Hawaii. Those values place a premium on caring for keiki and kupuna. Let the GOP control the Senate and we can all kiss Medicare and Social Security goodbye. Hirono will always stand by Hawaii’s BFFs, Daniel K. Inouye and Barack Obama.

With their views broadly known, the candidates have to take each other apart to highlight differences and score points.

Hirono was the first to directly attack Lingle at the JCCH debate: She said Lingle chairs the Romney-Ryan ticket. Lingle let the remark go until Hirono mentioned it again, and then she asked moderator Dan Boylan for the chance to respond.

In fact, as Lingle acknowledged, she is honorary co-chair of the Jewish Americans for Romney Coalition. It’s a big leap, Lingle implied, to say that she chairs the Romney-Ryan ticket.

Hirono didn’t back down, and one of Kiriakos’ fact checks attempted to back her up. In fact, the “fact check” mostly brought up Lingle’s support for John McCain, Sarah Palin and George W. Bush. The “fact check” didn’t support what Hirono said about Lingle chairing the Romney-Ryan ticket and was instead another example of tying Lingle to national Republicans.

Hirono also said Lingle was wrong to say that there is no subcommittee in the U.S. Senate that addresses tourism — something Lingle has called for creating. The Kiriakos “fact check” said there is a U.S. Senate Travel & Tourism Caucus — caucus, not subcommittee — and a U.S. Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Competitiveness, Innovation and Export Promotion “that oversees the U.S. tourism industry.”

In fact, according to the subcommittee’s website, that subcommittee “has general oversight jurisdiction over the U.S. Department of Commerce, whose mission is to foster, serve, and promote the nation’s foreign and domestic commerce, economic development, technological advancement, and environmental stewardship.” Tourism may be part of that kuleana, but it is far from a stated priority.

Several hours after the debate, the Lingle camp fired back with its own fact checks — 10 of them (which will no doubt be available as well on Lingle’s campaign website). They included the aforementioned jibes about the tourism subcommittee and Romney-Ryan chair as well as things like disputing Hirono’s view that ending tax breaks for the richest 2 percent would solve the nation’s deficit and debt crisis.

Clearly, there’s a lot of parsing going on between these two campaigns. It’s good to have politicians debating the facts, but the end result may be that the real truth gets even more muddled.

It was during the exchange between the candidates over Medicare that Hirono brought up the bit about Lingle co-chairing the GOP presidential ticket, and things were a bit tense between the two. There was tension again when they quibbled over whether Bush led a largely unilateral (as Hirono insisted) or a multilateral (as Lingle insisted) military force into Iraq. (Lingle’s people fact-checked that sucker, too.)

“This is fun!” Hirono said at one point, and that may have been true. But it seemed that Lingle may have got under Hirono’s skin a bit; as the forum wore on, Hirono seemed to tire and to repeat statements — e.g., you know, how the U.S. is still in the worst economic recession since the Great Depression and how the Bush tax cuts favor the richest 2 percent.

For her part, Lingle seemed to sense vulnerability in her opponent and grew more confidant in her attacks. Lingle, however, is sometimes overly careful, not wanting to open herself to possible attack. Asked, for example, where she stood on the Honolulu rail project, Lingle replied that she is against the project as proposed but, if elected to the Senate, she would work with the mayoral candidate who does not support rail.

What she did not do was name that candidate, Ben Cayetano, as if he was anathema. Same goes for Romney and Ryan, who Lingle hardly mentioned at all, though they lead her party.

Folks, we’ve got ourselves a hell of a Senate race. The remaining debates are televised, so a wide audience will get the chance to better inform their choice.

The JCCH debate was co-sponsored by the Honolulu Japanese Chamber of Commerce, 
Hawaii Association of Realtors, 
Hawaii Restaurant Association, 
Hawaii Society of Business Professionals, 
Hawaii Independent Insurance Agents Association and the 
Land Use Research Foundation of Hawaii. Olelo Community Media recorded the debate; check their website for broadcast times.

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