Remember way last spring when Gov. Norm Bangerter was complaining that Democrat Ted Wilson wouldn't debate him? Well, the great gubernatorial debates are over and Bangerter's not complaining about that anymore.
All told, Wilson, Bangerter and independent Merrill Cook have met more than 30 times in debates and so-called joint appearances. The joint appearances often turned into debates when, after the candidates' speeches, questions from the audience led to the candidates taking out after each other.The formal debates ended this week with live affairs Monday on KUTV Channel 2 and Tuesday on KSL-TV Channel 5. Next Monday, KUED Channel 7 will broadcast a debate taped Oct. 6 at Southern Utah State College.
Okay. So who won the debates and who lost?
That depends, as always, on whom you ask. But certainly, the debates weren't as critical to the campaign as the two presidential debates between George Bush and Michael Dukakis.
Here are some general observances on the Utah governor debates gleaned from talking to campaign workers, those at debates and candidates for other races:
Bangerter did better than many expected. Even Wilson casually admitted that in the KSL-TV broadcast, saying the debates have "energized" the governor.
During Bangerter's three years in office the TV camera has not been his friend. He doesn't look especially good on TV and isn't demonstrative enough for the medium.
But Bangerter is a very competitive man. Give him a goal and a direction and he fights. The debates offered such a forum - a man-on-man confrontation, much like a sporting event, that is focused and clear.
Wilson, a more polished politician who has learned the art of the sound bite, was always expected to do well. He did, but was a bit surprised by how well Bangerter and Cook performed.
Cook was expected to be the weak link. But he wasn't.
Like the governor, Cook doesn't look too good on TV either. Sometimes the hot lights got the better of him, bringing on the dreaded beads of perspiration that doomed Richard Nixon in his famous debates with John Kennedy. But Cook zinged Bangerter and Wilson time and again, taking good advantage of his outside-the-establishment role to criticize the two for protecting bureaucrats and raising taxes.
Since Wilson has led throughout the race, the debates sometimes turned into a two-on-one fight, with Wilson getting kicked from both sides.
But the natural animosity between Cook and Bangerter showed up several times as well. Wilson's and Bangerter's opposition to the tax initiatives - strongly supported by Cook - led to the two of them jumping on Cook regularly.
And Bangerter's record as governor was fodder for Wilson and Cook, who took turns pointing out what they say are the failed policies of Bangerter's economic development.
So there was no natural coalition of two against one as some in the Bangerter and Wilson camps feared before the debates began.
The three debated so often, almost 20 times by Wilson's count, that they fell into a regular routine and even stole some of the other guy's complaints about the third.
At one point, the debates did turn a little nasty. Bangerter started calling Wilson a lightweight, full of fluff with no specific proposals. That passed away after a week or so, however, aided by Wilson's release of several specific "white papers" on economic development and education.
While all the debates had good audiences in the halls, it can't be said that Bangerter's and Cook's unexpected good performances reached enough of the general public to justify Wilson's gradual slippage in the polls. A number of the debates were reported in the media, but the mass appeal broadcasts by the three local TV stations of their own debates came after Wilson's slide began.
Aside from who won or lost specific debates, clearly Cook was an overall winner simply by being invited to most of them.
Early on, Bangerter didn't want Cook present. Representatives of the governor's campaign even told some groups who wanted to sponsor a debate that if Cook came, the governor wasn't interested in attending.
The governor maintained that Cook couldn't win the election, and so should be treated as other minor-party candidates on the Libertarian or American Party tickets and not invited at all.
But the reason went deeper than that.
First, Cook supporters within the Republican Party - Cook's party before he dropped out to run as an independent - embarrassed the governor at the Utah StateRepublican Convention. They attempted, probably illegally, to get Cook nominatedto run against Bangerter. Secondly, it is the conventional political wisdom that Cook takes more conservative Republican support from Bangerter than he does independents and moderates from Wilson and thus hurts the governor's chances of beating the front-running Wilson. (Although Deseret News/KSL-TV polls show just the opposite - that Cook hurts Wilson more.)
When the Utah Farm Bureau, sponsor of the first non-media debate, kept to its traditional policy of inviting only the Democratic and Republican candidates, Cook supporters picketed outside the hall and Cook sat on the front row. Excluded from the debate itself, Cook actually got in the last word. When the debate moderator asked the rhetorical question, "Which of us would put ourselves through this?" Cook jumped up and said in a loud voice "I would," getting loud applause and laughter.
Bangerter then changed his attitude toward Cook, perhaps not wanting to appear unfair. While still maintaining that Cook couldn't win, the governor said he would attend any debate with Wilson (he declined to meet Cook alone) and left the matter whether Cook should be invited or not up to the sponsor.
Cook has appeared in almost every debate since, being invited to some, like the Salt Lake Area Chamber of Commerce debate, after originally being excluded.