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Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Who prevailed in the first debate between Mia Love and Doug Owens?

Published: Sunday, May 25 2014 8:30 a.m. MDT

Fourth Congressional District candidates, Republican Mia Love and Democrat Doug Owens, shake hands after a debate during the 36th Annual Utah Taxes Now Conference in Salt Lake City Tuesday, May 20, 2014. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) Fourth Congressional District candidates, Republican Mia Love and Democrat Doug Owens, shake hands after a debate during the 36th Annual Utah Taxes Now Conference in Salt Lake City Tuesday, May 20, 2014. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

Last week, the Utah Taxpayers Association conference featured the first debate between 4th District congressional candidates — Saratoga Springs Mayor Mia Love and prominent attorney Doug Owens. Frank moderated the debate (some audience members are still seeking therapy), and LaVarr attended.

Who prevailed in the debate and how did they perform?

Pignanelli: “He who frames the question wins the debate” — Randall Terry

Two impressions were made — Love benefited enormously from prior campaign and television appearances; and Owens is on the attack. Love was composed and confident, articulating the usual concerns with the federal government. Owens was well-prepared. However, he learned the same lesson I garnered in my maiden candidate speech — courtroom oratory is very different than electioneering. ("Flesh immediately transformed to stone" is how one supporter described my initial foray.)

Republican congressional candidate Mia Love speaks with the media after a debate with Democrat Doug Owens during the 36th Annual Utah Taxes Now Conference in Salt Lake City Tuesday, May 20, 2014. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) Republican congressional candidate Mia Love speaks with the media after a debate with Democrat Doug Owens during the 36th Annual Utah Taxes Now Conference in Salt Lake City Tuesday, May 20, 2014. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

Owens revealed his tactic to paint Love as a right-wing fanatic, with the hope of attracting moderate Republicans. He pounded her for statements and policies she forwarded in the last election. She maintained incredible discipline by deflecting the jabs. He provided a good answer for Obamacare — critiquing how it was rammed through Congress without bipartisan input but promised to maintain the important elements.

The debate also certified that Mia Love is a determined persona of strength and will. Both she and Owens offered thoughtful responses to difficult questions. Thus, the election will be decided on more than just policy, but on strategy. Politicos now have a realistic hope the 2014 election could be interesting.

Webb: This encounter wasn’t really a test of either candidate’s debate skills or knowledge of the issues because they received all the questions in advance and weren’t allowed to rebut or interact much with each other. They had obviously prepared carefully scripted written responses. Hopefully, they will have many free-wheeling debates where they won’t know what questions will be tossed at them.

Democratic congressional candidate Doug Owens speaks to media after a debate with Republican Mia Love during the 36th Annual Utah Taxes Now Conference in Salt Lake City Tuesday, May 20, 2014. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) Democratic congressional candidate Doug Owens speaks to media after a debate with Republican Mia Love during the 36th Annual Utah Taxes Now Conference in Salt Lake City Tuesday, May 20, 2014. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

I thought Owens won on substance, while Love was more animated and passionate.

Despite minimal polling, the conventional wisdom is that Mia Love leads by a fair margin against Owens. What does he need to do to gain traction, and what must she avoid to maintain her advantage?

Pignanelli: Love 2014 is not Love 2012. She hired the best in the business — Dave Hansen and Kitty Dunn — to transform her former dysfunctional campaign into a well-oiled juggernaut. Love enjoys the financial resources and name identification of an incumbent, but without a record. Reminding voters of her compelling personal story, while adhering to the course laid by Hansen/Dunn, is Love’s winning formula.

Owens has a difficult — but not impossible — mission. To succeed, he must attract a chunk of GOP and independent voters, and certainly not antagonize them when raising doubts about Love. Further, Owens should define himself before Love does it for him.

Democratic congressional candidate Doug Owens speaks during a debate with Republican Mia Love during the 36th Annual Utah Taxes Now Conference in Salt Lake City Tuesday, May 20, 2014. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) Democratic congressional candidate Doug Owens speaks during a debate with Republican Mia Love during the 36th Annual Utah Taxes Now Conference in Salt Lake City Tuesday, May 20, 2014. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

Webb: The race is clearly Love’s to lose. The district’s Republican-majority political makeup gives her a major advantage, and the national GOP will pour in as much money and resources as necessary to ensure a win. This is a pickup seat for House Republicans, and for the first time in history they would have a black female serving in the House.

Love is also in better shape this cycle because she didn’t need to run far to the right and please the tea party delegates to win the nomination. She has mostly avoided right-wing positions and statements. Most of Owens’ criticisms targeted things she said two years ago, although he also blasted her more recent appearance at a Sen. Mike Lee rally, which seemed to celebrate the government shutdown, which wasn’t popular in Utah. Love’s campaign theme should be: “Don’t Do Anything Stupid.”

Congressional candidates Republican Mia Love and Democrat Doug Owens shake hands prior to a debate during the 36th Annual Utah Taxes Now Conference in Salt Lake City Tuesday, May 20, 2014. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) Congressional candidates Republican Mia Love and Democrat Doug Owens shake hands prior to a debate during the 36th Annual Utah Taxes Now Conference in Salt Lake City Tuesday, May 20, 2014. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

Owens is a moderate Democrat in the tradition of Jim Matheson and is a nice guy. But he has to go on the attack and draw a distinction because he loses a low-key, quiet election. But he also can’t cross the line and be mean or condescending. Nice-guy Peter Corroon tried the attack-dog approach against Gov. Gary Herbert in 2010 and lost badly.

This will be the highest profile race in 2014, so could the contest between Love and Owens impact other elections?

Pignanelli: Utahns loved Matheson's maverick independence, which helped some Democrats because the media market for congressional elections is the whole state. If Owens can replicate Matheson’s magic, Democrats will benefit. If Love succeeds in characterizing Owens as a lackey of the national Democrats, election night will be rough.

Democratic congressional candidate Doug Owens speaks during a debate with Republican Mia Love during the 36th Annual Utah Taxes Now Conference in Salt Lake City Tuesday, May 20, 2014. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) Democratic congressional candidate Doug Owens speaks during a debate with Republican Mia Love during the 36th Annual Utah Taxes Now Conference in Salt Lake City Tuesday, May 20, 2014. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

Webb: Owens is a solid candidate and he needs to do reasonably well or good Democrats will simply give up on congressional and statewide races.

But if he loses, perhaps he can at least come up with a memorable quote that measures up to one of my all-time favorite political quotes — uttered by his father, the late Wayne Owens. Wayne Owens was a popular, charismatic congressman who served back in the days when Democrats still had a chance of winning. He probably could have served for decades in the House, but he could never resist the siren song of higher office, so he ran for the governorship and U.S. Senate (twice) and lost.

He smilingly confided to friends: “When someone whispers in my ear about running for office, I hear the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing the 'Hallelujah Chorus.’ ”

Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and Deseret News managing editor. Email: lwebb@exoro.com. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as minority leader. His spouse, D'Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, is a state tax commissioner. Email: frankp@xmission.com.

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