Debates can’t usually help, but they can kill.
That’s according to Florida Atlantic University political-science professor Kevin Wagner, who’s made a study of presidential debates.
The Florida Democratic Party’s top contenders to replace outgoing Republican Gov. Rick Scott faced off this week in their first debate of the campaign season.
There were a few gaffes, but nothing that would rise to the level of past candidacy-killing flubs by statewide and presidential wannabes.
And Wagner said that’s probably a good thing for the four Dems: former Congresswoman Gwen Graham, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine and Winter Park entrepreneur Chris King.
“Especially early on, you can’t win an election on a debate. It’s very rare you have a moment in a debate that puts you over the top. But you can make a mistake in a debate that might cost you,” Wagner said. “You don’t win elections in debates, but you do lose them from time to time.”
Wagner pointed out a blunder by Democrat Bill McBride during a debate against Republican Gov. Jeb Bush in 2002.
McBride was unable to say how he would pay for enhancements to public education, prompting Bush to label his foe as a “tax and spend” Democrat.
“It made him (McBride) look like he didn’t think through budget matters or how the budget works, and that really hurt him,” Wagner said, pointing out that McBride was polling close to Bush until the debate.
McBride’s mistake also brings to mind former Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s “oops” moment, when he forgot one of the three federal agencies he said he wanted to do away with during a 2011 debate between the Republican presidential candidates.
“I will tell you, it is three agencies of government when I get there that are gone. Commerce, Education, and the --- What’s the third one there? Let’s see,” Perry said.
After much prompting, Perry wound up with: “The third one, I can’t. Sorry. Oops.”
While Perry’s bungle may have cost him on the presidential stage, it didn’t leave a permanent stain.
He’s now secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy, the third agency the then-candidate wanted to eliminate but couldn’t recall.
Also on the presidential level, Wagner noted that former Vice President Dan Quayle was defined by one fatal line during a 1988 debate.
Dan Quayle likened himself to Jack Kennedy, aka former President John F. Kennedy, drawing a rebuke from Democratic vice-presidential contender Lloyd Bentsen.
“Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy,” Bentsen said. That last line may have eclipsed Bentsen’s political legacy and has stuck with Quayle ever since.
In general, early debates serve as helpful dress rehearsals for candidates to hone their skills before voters really start to tune into elections.
But in a modern age where every breath is documented, stored and shared, even the slightest slip-up is saved for posterity, and potentially could come back to haunt the candidates.
“In some cases, like Dan Quayle, it will live with you for the rest of your career,” Wagner said.
SHOW UP EARLY
Whichever Democrat gets the nomination will be on a lengthy ballot in November.
The state Constitution Revision Commission, which meets every two decades, finished its work this week after approving eight proposed constitutional amendments for the general-election ballot.
Those eight proposals, covering 20 different issues, will join five other measures --- three from the Legislature, and two from petition drives --- already on the ballot, to bring the total to 13.
The constitutional revisions proposed by the Legislature include an expansion of the homestead property-tax exemption and a requirement for two-thirds votes by future legislatures when raising taxes or fees. The petition-drive measures would allow voters to decide on future expansions of casino gambling and would restore voting rights to felons who have served their sentences.
The 13 measures on the November ballot will be the most voters have faced since 1998, the last time the Constitution Revision Commission met and put nine amendments on the ballot. Voters approved eight of the nine amendments as well as four constitutional changes sought by the Legislature.
But this year will be the first time that ballot measures from the commission will have to be approved by at least 60 percent of voters; the increase in the margin of approval from a majority vote to 60 percent came in 2006.
Critics of the current commission’s process are blasting the way it combined issues in ballot proposals, a move some opponents describe as “logrolling.”
David Mica, executive director of the Florida Petroleum Council, called it “surreal” and “bizarre” to watch the commission this week overwhelmingly approve a proposed constitutional amendment that would combine a ban on nearshore oil and gas drilling with a ban on vaping and electronic cigarettes in workplaces.
“It just doesn’t make sense that they should be linked together,” Mica said. “You should be able to make decisions about your public health and your economic viability separately.”
Commissioner Brecht Heuchan, chairman of the panel’s Style and Drafting Committee, defended the grouping, saying the sponsors of the drilling and vaping proposals worked together with a moniker of “clean air, clean water.”
GOTTA KNOW WHEN TO FOLD ‘EM
One of the proposed constitutional amendments that landed on the ballot through a petition drive could make it harder to expand gambling in the future.
As they ponder that possibility, legislative leaders have been scurrying to craft a potentially sweeping gambling deal before voters weigh in on Amendment 3 in November.
But while the legislative talks went on behind the scenes this week, Scott announced that he had reached a new agreement with the Seminole Tribe to keep cash from tribal casinos flowing into state coffers for another year.
The tribe agreed to continue making about $300 million a year in payments through the 2019 legislative session. In exchange for the payments, which are rooted in a 2010 gambling “compact,” the tribe would continue to have exclusive rights to offer games such as blackjack at its casinos and would continue to be the state’s only slot-machine operator outside of Miami-Dade and Broward counties.
Under the 13-month agreement, the Seminoles would keep up the payments “provided the state does not enact legislation to expand gaming subject to exclusivity under the compact during the forbearance period.”
Insiders are wondering if that could signal a veto from the governor, should the Legislature convene a special session and pass legislation that would grant approval for slot machines in eight counties --- Brevard, Duval, Gadsden, Hamilton, Lee, Palm Beach, St. Lucie and Washington --- where local voters have signed off on the lucrative machines.
Even so, Wednesday’s announcement did little to scuttle talks between House and Senate leaders.
Rep. Jose Oliva and Sen. Bill Galvano, who will take over as House speaker and Senate president after the fall elections, have been in talks for weeks --- without the Seminoles at the table --- about a possible special session on the gambling issue.
The two leaders are reportedly near agreement but have not closed out a deal that likely would encompass slot machines, controversial “designated player” card games and myriad other gambling-related issues. Efforts by lawmakers to reach agreement on major gambling issues have repeatedly failed over the years.
“It's a positive development but does not rule out a special. There are still many questions regarding the statewide framework of gaming,” Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, said in a text message, referring to the agreement that Scott announced Wednesday with the tribe.
STORY OF THE WEEK: The Florida Constitution Revision Commission wrapped up its work, adding eight proposals to the November ballot, bringing to 13 the total number of potential constitutional changes facing voters this fall.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “It’s Gwen and the men.” --- Former Congresswoman Gwen Graham, a Democrat running for governor, during a debate with primary opponents Andrew Gillum, Philip Levine, and Chris King.