For months, voters have been besieged by political ads – nearly $30 million worth – for incumbent U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan and her Republican challenger, state House Speaker Thom Tillis.
On Wednesday, the candidates step away from the clatter, claims and counter claims of the ads to face each other in the first of three planned debates. And they’ll do so under the glare of a national spotlight.
With the race one of a handful that could tip the balance of power in the Democratic-controlled U.S. Senate, the debate is garnering national attention – a fact underlined by the selection of “CBS This Morning” co-anchor Norah O’Donnell to moderate. George Stephanopoulos, chief anchor at ABC News, will moderate the second debate.
Here is a quick look at what to expect:
What’s the format?
O’Donnell will alternate questions between the pair. After the first candidate answers, the other will have an opportunity to respond, and then each will be allowed follow-up comments. At the end of the debate, each candidate will be allowed to ask two questions of the other.
There won’t be a studio audience, although both candidates will be permitted to bring a small group of supporters into the room during the debate. However, the supporters won’t be allowed to cheer or clap.
Just tuning in factor
The debate will give people an opportunity to size up the candidates apart from news coverage and the “blizzard of hollering” that constitutes what longtime GOP consultant Carter Wrenn calls the TV ad campaigns,
“Neither of these two candidates are really well known, in the sense of Jesse Helms or Jim Hunt,” Wrenn said Tuesday. “Tillis is new to statewide races. Hagan has run once but still a lot may know her name but not a lot about her. The big question people have in their minds watching is, ‘Who are these folks? What makes them tick?’ More than the issues, I think that’s the big thing people look for in debates.”
Thomas Mills, a Democratic analyst, agrees.
“Nobody knows enough about them,” he said. “They’ve been shaped by these millions of dollars of TV ads. It’s hard to compete with that: They’ve created these kind of one-dimensional characters – they’re either all bad or all good. All people and most politics is far more nuanced than that.”
With limited name-recognition and polling about even, the contenders will have to make that first impression memorable.
“Expect both candidates to come out swinging,” said Chris Sinclair, a Republican strategist. “This race is essentially tied. They need to score points fast – expect fireworks from both sides.”
Obama vs. the General Assembly
The candidates can be expected to plow a familiar rut in their messaging: Tillis will continue to tie Hagan to President Barack Obama, and she will tie him to the controversial state legislature.
“Expect him to position her as running up debt and spending, along with perceived failures to take care of North Carolina’s veterans,” Sinclair said. “He will claim she’s part of a dysfunctional Washington. Hagan will attempt to localize the race by positioning Tillis as part of a dysfunctional General Assembly that is not investing enough in education.”
Among the other issues that could come up: the federal health care law, tax cuts, veterans benefits and immigration.
So far social issues such as abortion have not been an advertising focus, but activists on both sides of the issue are stirring up their supporters to turn out for this election.
State chapters of Planned Parenthood and Women Speak Out will hold dueling rallies outside the UNC-TV studio before the debate.
How to succeed on TV
Mills says Hagan has appeared defensive when challenged at some public events.
“I think she needs to come across as more self-assured and knows where she stands,” he said. “She’s running as a moderate. If you’re a moderate, you’re one of two people: mushy in the middle or an independent. She needs to establish herself as an independent voice.”
Writing in his blog, Politics North Carolina, Mills said Hagan must keep her appearance focused on Tillis’ record as a harbinger of what he would be like in the Senate. Tillis, Mills says, needs to reach beyond the anti-Obama sentiment of his base and give voters real reasons for kicking Hagan out of office.