Bev Perdue needed a ladder. Instead, she brought a shovel.
    Having dug herself deeply into a political hole over the past couple of weeks on the issue of offshore drilling for oil and natural gas, Perdue came into the Aug. 19 TV debate with Pat McCrory needing to offer a more coherent position. She needed to explain how she could go from being “100 percent opposed” to drilling off the North Carolina coast last month to being, well, for drilling this month if Congress and a governmental panel say it’s okay — maybe. And she needed to perform better than in her first TV debate with McCrory back in June.
    {mosimage}During the hourlong forum on WTVD, the Triangle’s ABC affiliate, Perdue did herself few favors.
    Both candidates had some important rhetorical goals going into the debate. McCrory needed to tie Perdue to an unpopular Democratic administration in Raleigh while keeping the discussion focused on issues where he believes he enjoys an advantage, such as energy and crime. Perdue needed to tie McCrory to an unpopular Republican administration in Washington while making him look risky, unproven, or indifferent to middle-class anxieties about college affordability and health care.
    McCrory accomplished his appointed tasks smoothly. After Perdue proclaimed herself “the healthcare leader in North Carolina for the past eight years,” McCrory referred several times to the failures of “this administration in Raleigh” over those eight years, on healthcare and other matters. Basically, she set herself up. His policy on energy was straightforward and easy to remember: drill, build new power plants, and reinvest the proceeds of oil and natural gas exploration in coastal infrastructure.
    Perdue did what she was supposed to, as well, but it was as though the two were in a footrace, McCrory was leaping effortlessly over the hurdles, and she kept knocking them down in a furious effort to keep up. Her convoluted discussion of drilling just sounded shifty and insincere. It didn’t have to be. John McCain flipped his position on the issue, too, but simply explained that $4 a gallon gas had changed his mind. That’s what Perdue should have done.
Instead, the lieutenant governor boasted and bludgeoned. I lost count of the number of times she began her sentences in the first person. “I’m so good at this,” she said at one point, referring to her coalition-building skills. “I’m shameless,” she said when touting her Web site.
    Then there were the attacks. Someone advised Perdue to go after McCrory for being against “child health insurance,” without bothering to explain what that could possibly mean or citing any evidence. Someone told her to say her energy policies were “responsible not reckless” and that she was for “safety first,” so she repeated the phrases several times, sounding a bit like George H.W. Bush — or perhaps Dana Carvey’s impersonation of Bush — saying “message: I care” back in that infamous 1992 debate.
    I’ve debated Pat McCrory before, on a policy — rail transit — where we have continued to disagree. I came away with a healthy respect for his manifest ability to frame issues and craft messages, as well as the sense that whatever vulnerabilities he had lay in pushing him hard on details. Perdue, a longtime state legislator, should have challenged his knowledge of state issues while exhibiting a command of substance and detail, underlining the “risky and unproven” message her campaign and out-of-state allies are trying to sell.
    That’s not the strategy Perdue chose. She chose to preen and peddle meaningless soundbites. And it cost her.
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