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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Saturday, October 26, 2002

Lingle keeps Hirono on the defensive

Hirono, Lingle trade jabs in only TV debate
Lingle gubernatorial campaign outspending Hirono, 3-to-1

By Kevin Dayton
Advertiser Capitol Bureau Chief

Republican gubernatorial candidate Linda Lingle debates Democratic nominee Mazie Hirono at the Hawai'i Public Television studio in Manoa. Six television stations and two radio stations carried it live.

Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser

Linda Lingle seemed firmly in charge in last night's debate, but the points she scored may not have an enormous impact on the race.

Lt. Gov. Mazie Hirono scored a few points, but Republican Linda Lingle grabbed almost all of the momentum last night as she beamed for the camera before launching one attack after another on the failings of the Hawai'i Democrats.

Appearing relaxed and at ease, Lingle at times baldly disregarded the questions she was asked and used the time to again hammer home her message that the Democrats failed to fix the public schools, failed to fix the economy and have grown complacent and corrupt.

Rather than attacking Hirono directly and personally, Lingle instead shredded what she called the "Cayetano-Hirono administration."

The approach effectively kept Hirono on the defensive for most of the one-hour debate. Hirono seemed to be almost groping for words in the early portion of the debate before she found her footing and prodded Lingle about her own record as mayor of Maui County.

The most recent polls show the race nearly tied, with Hirono closing the gap with Lingle during the past month, although The Honolulu Advertiser Hawai'i Poll published yesterday found that more than 16 percent of the voters remain undecided. Lingle said before the debate that the publicity surrounding the event may have prompted some people to reserve judgment until after they watched it, and she hoped to use the opportunity to win them over.

Last night marked the first live gubernatorial debate ever broadcast simultaneously on all four major Honolulu TV stations.

"I think the debate is very important in the campaign because it will give the people of Hawai'i an opportunity to judge the candidates on their leadership ability," Lingle said earlier in the day. "Part of leadership is being able to analyze information rapidly and reach a sound conclusion, and because of the format of the debate it can't be very scripted."

Lingle did seem firmly in charge of the message last night, but the points she scored may not have an enormous impact on the race.

Don Clegg, a pollster and political consultant working for the Democratic coordinated campaign, said debates usually present more of an opportunity for disaster than for advancement of a candidate.

In general, debates usually change large numbers of voters' minds "only if one of the people makes a bad blunder, and the blunder can be a variety of forms," he said.

"I think if Mazie holds her own, then she will have gotten through this successfully," Clegg said. "Everybody expects that Linda will out-verbalize her, and this is what they thought of Ben Cayetano.

"What the candidates are trying to do in the debate, and they are trying to do everywhere, is to create an image that will make the voters want to have them as their leader, in this case as their governor."

On that level, Hirono may have fared better with what was clearly a less confrontational message. While Lingle used her closing statement to insist that she is the candidate who truly represents "change," Hirono tried a much softer message.

"Growing up in Hawai'i, I was embraced and nurtured by my teachers, my family, my neighbors. I knew early on, I wanted to make a difference. I made a commitment to public service so that I could give back to Hawai'i," she said. "I promise you this, a new administration with a fresh approach that will preserve and protect the best of Hawai'i."

As if she knew in advance that she would be verbally outgunned, Hirono said in her closing statement: "I ask you to look beyond sound bites and rhetoric to truly look at each of us. The bottom line is, who can you really trust?"

Reach Kevin Dayton at 525-8070 or kdayton@honoluluadvertiser.com.