Ron Barber, Jesse Kelly & Tough Questions



Republicans are making a big deal over Democrat Ron Barber’s dodging of Republican Jesse Kelly’s question about whether he’d support Barack Obama in the presidential race this year during last night's CD8 debate.

Barber, who is facing Kelly in the June 12 special election triggered by Gabrielle Giffords' resignation, appeared unprepared for the question and certainly sidestepped it, saying that "My vote is my vote, Mr. Kelly, as yours is to you."

It was probably Barber’s worst moment in the debate and today, his spokeswoman, Jessica Schultz, sent out a statement that Barber did support Obama:

Ron’s point last night was that the election on June 12 isn't about president Obama, or any other national figure—it's about who is going to do the best job fighting for middle class families in southern Arizona. While Ron does not agree with the President on everything, of course Ron has supported and will support President Obama in the election. His primary focus as a member of Congress will be standing up for Southern Arizonans.

It’s easy to understand why Arizona Democrats are cautious about tying themselves too closely to Obama. Just this week, Public Policy Polling released a new survey showing that 41 percent of Arizona voters approved of Obama’s handling of the presidency, while 56 percent disapprove.

Voters in Congressional District 8, which tilts more than 6 percentage points toward the GOP, probably break down roughly the same way.

While Barber sidestepped the Obama question during last night's debate, though, Kelly has been sidestepping questions for his entire campaign. He refuses to sit down for interviews with the Arizona Daily Star or Tucson Weekly, preferring to deliver canned responses via email to questions that reporters have.

While Kelly is adept at delivering soundbites, he and his team have shown little appetite for actually discussing policy matters. In this campaign, for example, he has refused to say whether he would have voted for the budget that House Republicans voted on earlier this year.

And this week, an interview with KGUN-9 blew up in the Kelly Camp’s face after campaign spokesman John Ellinwood came unglued when Kelly was asked about seeking the endorsement of ALIPAC, a political action committee that has been linked to white supremacists, neo-Nazis and anti-Semites.

I have to give kudos to KGUN-9’s Jennifer Waddell, Forrest Carr and Marcelino Benito, who revealed the behind-the-scenes tantrum that Ellinwood threw when the question came up. (Ellinwood is certainly doing his candidate no favors with his tactics here, given that the story has now gotten way more attention thanks to his antics.)

The KGUN team also deserves credit for continuing to ask Kelly about the endorsement rather than giving up. That led to a rather astonishing exchange before yesterday’s debate, which Carr explained today on KGUN’s Web page:

It's a fact of life in 21st century politics that some candidates tend to be over-handled by their campaign staffs. No matter what the question, such micro-managed candidates tend to answer with a prefab statement reflecting the campaign's main talking points for the month, week, day or hour. This is a process known as "staying on message."

You might also call it the "Chatty Cathy Effect." Any question of any kind on any topic might serve to pull a ring on the candidate's back, resulting in a replay of the candidate's pre-recorded and officially approved central campaign themes.

You could see this effect during the KGUN9 studio interview. When asked why he had accepted that ALIPAC endorsement in 2010, Kelly finally responded, "This election is about jobs, and the economy, and lower gas prices." He then pronounced the ALIPAC topic "out of bounds."

You could see the effect again even more dramatically Wednesday night, when KGUN9 reporter Marcelino Benito asked Kelly whether he intended to accept this year's renewed ALIPAC endorsement. Here is a transcript of that conversation:

Benito: "Do you plan on accepting that endorsement this time around?"

Kelly: "Our campaign is going to stay focused on lower gas prices using American energy, lower taxes, and creating jobs."

Benito: "Do you plan on accepting that endorsement?"

Kelly: "Our campaign is going to stay focused on lower gas prices using American energy, lower taxes, and creating jobs."

Benito: "So it that a yes or a no?"

Kelly: "Our campaign is going to stay focused on lower gas prices using American energy, lower taxes, and creating jobs."

Benito: "So no comment?"

Kelly: "Our campaign is going to stay focused on lower gas prices using American energy, lower taxes, and creating jobs."

This absurd exchange illustrates how candidates want to manipulate the media, but it also shows how the media, when it tires of manipulation and focuses on doing its job of asking tough questions that candidates would prefer to avoid, can reveal how shallow a candidate really is.

Team Kelly clearly wants the media in this town to just accept soundbites—typically, ones that make some reference to lower gas prices or the $500 billion cut to Medicare—and not pursue follow-up questions. The last thing he wants to have to do is explain is a policy question such as how you can allow younger workers to opt out of Social Security and continue to provide benefits to seniors.

The crew at KGUN deserves credit for pushing back against that strategy and pursuing a line of questioning that's entirely within bounds. Kelly pursued the ALIPAC endorsement in 2010. He filled out their questionnaire and took a pledge to the organization. He was endorsed again by the organization last week.

There’s no reason the press should not ask him whether he still stands by the organization or if he now disavows it.

And every media organization in Tucson should stand behind KGUN and keep asking the question until Kelly answers it. That’s good journalism, not gotcha journalism.

Ron Barber may have sidestepped a question last night, but he’s since answered it. When is Camp Kelly going to start answering questions?

For more on the race, read our in-depth look at the candidates here.

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