New Mexico's race for the U.S. Senate seemed closer in the first televised debate Thursday than recent polls have suggested, with both candidates giving strong performances, putting the other on the defense and avoiding major mistakes.
U.S. Rep. Martin Heinrich and former U.S. Rep. Heather Wilson for an hour debated in a format that didn't feature the usual podiums or timed responses. Instead, the pair faced each other at a table in the KRQE Channel 13 studios, and were able to interrupt as needed -- which they did often on topics ranging from immigration to the deficit and the state's national labs.
Heinrich, the Democrat, is up 52 percent to 39 percent over Wilson, the Republican, in a recent Rasmussen Reports poll.
But that might not have been apparent from the performance, said University of New Mexico political science professor Tim Krebs. "It was clearly the case that he was not going to rest on his poll numbers. I didn't get the sense that he was acting in a risk-averse fashion."
Overall, Heinrich kept Wilson on her toes with questions about her role in the country's deficit and war spending, trying to portray her as partly responsible for the country's poor economy. Wilson, in turn, worked to downplay Heinrich's four years in the House. She said he had a chance to pass immigration reform and suggested that many of his votes will have negative impacts on New Mexico, including a vote for defense spending cuts that would mean a loss of jobs in New Mexico.
Just staying even with Heinrich in the debate might not be enough to put Wilson ahead in the overall race, Krebs said.
"Going into the debate, Wilson is down in the polls and so something big has to happen to change some dynamics of the race. I don't think that happened," he said.
With about 10 percent of polled voters undecided in the election, both candidates worked to portray themselves as independent thinkers who stray from party bosses when they don't agree. Heinrich talked about voting against President Barack Obama's proposed budget cuts for LANL, while Wilson spoke of voting against budget proposals by U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan. Wilson also gave other examples of her independence, something she probably could have done even more of, said UNM political science professor Lonna Atkeson.
"She did go against her party several times, and she didn't emphasize that enough," Atkeson said. "I think she needs to be seen as generally very moderate. I don't think she's going to lose her base if she does that, but maybe she worries about that."
One key theme of the debate was what can be done to help middle-class Americans.
"The people who really need help right now are the middle class, and I think we need to focus on concrete things that will put them back in the driver's seat and make sure that they have a strong economic future in this country," Heinrich said.
But Wilson suggested the policies Heinrich has proposed so far haven't been successful. "We have had ... a $4,000 decline in the average household income in this state. We've lost 30,000 jobs. The price of groceries is up, the price of gas is up, the cost of a college education is through the roof. And you're trying to help the middle class? Quit helping. What you are doing isn't working," she said.
While the politicians' words about the middle class seemed clear, other parts of the debate bogged down with a barrage of statistics. Atkeson said that was something that likely didn't help many voters understand the candidates' positions.
"I got lost in the percents and details, and how can the average voter or even a sophisticated voter translate that into something usable?" she said.
Krebs and Atkeson said the debate gave voters more substance than the recent spate of TV ads, but mostly on policy issues. When asked by moderator Dick Knipfing about their policy views on energy, for example, the candidates got to expand on those, which haven't been a popular topic for ads.
There wasn't much personal talk from the candidates with which voters could connect, except when Wilson pulled out her Social Security card during a section of the debate on preserving the payments for recipients.
Holding the card in her hand, Wilson said, "I know what it's like to be on Social Security. This is my Social Security card. I don't have to ask my parents or my neighbors what it's like to be on Social Security, and I know these safety-net programs matter to people because I've lived that. So, I think the most important thing is that the check is there for people who depend on Social Security today."
The statement was a reference to her family's Social Security checks after her father died. She says in a campaign ad that she signed the card when she was 7 without knowing what it meant, but realizing that a check came each month to help her mom.
Overall, neither candidate made a gaffe, and both kept up with a rather fast-paced discussion, the political science professors agreed.
Krebs said Wilson made one comment that seemed a little odd during a rather protracted part of the debate on tax cuts.
"You're going to do great on the filibuster in the Senate," Wilson told Heinrich.
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