The Times-sponsored debate by Democratic candidates for 2nd District Congress last night at Sticky Fingerz looks as good to me the morning after as it did last night.
Big crowd (200-plus). Lots of uncommitted younger voters. One young couple I talked with came undecided but left wearing a candidate's stickers. The candidates had some reservations about the setting in a restaurant/bar, but gamely soldiered on, made a few mild opening jokes about the venue and got down to the night's serious round of questions and answers. There's no doubt the setting attracted people who wouldn't have been attracted by a school auditorium. It's my impression the crowd was livelier and more engaged than those I've seen in other political forums this year. The candidates seemed to feed on that. Or maybe the energy just reflected the fact that election time grows short.
The field is uncommonly strong. They are not cookie cutter candidates on issues, but nobody who wandered in uneducated would have had any trouble guessing their party affiliation. I found myself wishing I could hear more of these sorts of Democratic-value answers in the Democratic primary race for U.S. Senate. But the Senate candidates don't face an electorate strongly influenced by votes from urban Pulaski County with its progressive voting record on everything from taxes to abortion to equal protection for gay people.
I'd be reluctant to pick a winner. Brains and passion were in abundant supply. House Speaker Robbie Wills, who most see as at least a likely runoff candidate, brought a bigger contingent and had practiced responses, and some good one-liners, on a number of issues. (On the war on drugs and overstuffed prisons, he said something to the effect that, "We need to worry less about jailing the people we're mad at and more about jailing the people we're scared of.") He reminded the crowd of some tough stances he's taken -- on immigrant legislation, for example -- but was convincing in his assertion that he was ready to take the fight to the Washington GOP attack machine he expects in the fall.
I thought two hours of exposure to the field on a wide range of issues would have to clarify voter sentiment. In some ways, it made it harder.
SPEAKING OF DEBATES: Blanche Lincoln and Bill Halter meet in their final debate, sponsored by the Political Animals Club, from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. FRIDAY at the Statehouse Convention Center. It's free and you can carry your lunch.
NOTE: I forgot to include the day in the original post on the Lincoln-Halter debate. It's FRIDAY.