Oops. Debates can’t help, but they can kill

Florida’s top Democratic candidates for governor — Andrew Gillum, Gwen Graham, Philip Levine and Chris King — spent an hour yesterday trying to burnish their creds as the best man or woman to succeed outgoing GOP Gov. Rick Scott.

After being repeatedly attacked by her opponents, former Congresswoman Graham probably scored the best line of the debate.

“I seem to be the one,” said Graham, the daughter of Bob Graham, who served as both U.S. senator and Florida governor. “It’s Gwen and the men.”

Graham’s response drew a quick rebuke from Gillum: “This isn’t just about the men against the women. Records do matter.”

There were a few gaffes, but nothing tat would rise to the level of candidacy-killing flubs by statewide and presidential wannabes in the past.

And that’s probably a good thing for the four Democratic contenders, according to Florida Atlantic University political science professor Kevin Wagner.

“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, who’s made a study of debates, told Truth or Dara this morning. “You don’t win elections in debates but you do lose them from time to time.”

Wagner reminded us of a blunder by Democrat Bill McBride during a debate against incumbent Florida 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 close to Bush in the polls until the debate.

“Not many people watch the debates, but it shows you that sometimes what happens in debates starts to percolate in conversations that people have,” the political science professor said.

The demise of McBride due to the debate prompted us to revisit former Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s unforgettable “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, who’s now the nation’s energy czar, said.

After much prompting, Perry wound up with: “The third one, I can’t. Sorry. Oops.”

Also on the presidential level, Wagner noted that former Vice President Dan Quayle was defined by one fatal line during a debate.

Dan Quayle likened himself to Jack Kennedy, aka former President John Kennedy, drawing this rebuke from vice-presidential contender Lloyd Bentsen in 1988.

“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 memorable line may have eclipsed Bentsen’s political legacy but has stuck with Quayle ever since.

In general, early debates largely serve as a helpful dress rehearsal for candidates to hone their skills before voters really start to tune into the upcoming elections.

But, in a modern age where every breath is documented, stored and shared, even the slightest swiff is saved for posterity, and potentially could be 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.