Pat Roberts and Greg Orman debated politics and policy for an hour Wednesday night, but political experts say the defining moment may have been the final question when they were asked to say something nice about each other – and Roberts didn’t.
Orman, who went first, complimented Roberts on his public service and background as a Marine. Roberts seemed to struggle with the question, praising Orman’s suit and teeth – coupled with a backhanded compliment about how he runs his business.
The exchange touched off chatter across social networks and media coverage that reached at least as far as the Washington Post, which posted a story headlined “Here’s what happens when two Senate candidates are asked to say something nice about each other.”
Most debates take on an identity and “in this debate, the identity that could emerge is that last minute” of questioning, said Robert Beatty, a professor of political science at Washburn University in Topeka. Beatty was on the debate panel questioning the Republican incumbent Roberts and independent challenger Orman.
While political debates generally feature scripted and well-practiced answers from the candidates, Beatty said it was obvious that neither candidate foresaw being asked to say something positive about his rival.
“It was a question neither candidate anticipated,” Beatty said. “When that happens, you can get a revealing moment.”
The question was posed by the moderator, Darren Dedo, an anchorman for KSN-TV, which hosted the debate with The Wichita Eagle and Topeka Capital-Journal: “Listen carefully. I’d like each of you to say something nice about your opponents.”
First, Orman: “I appreciate Sen. Roberts’ service to our country. I appreciate his service in the Marines and I will have to say that every time I’ve had an opportunity to talk privately with the senator, he’s been a gentleman with a great sense of humor.”
Then, Roberts: “Well semper fi, Greg, Marines take the hill. I would say that you are a very well-dressed opponent. I admire your accumulation of wealth, have a little question about how you got there from here, but I think that’s the American dream and I would hope that we could make that possible for everybody up and down every small Kansas community. I think yours has been a little bit different. You have a very nice smile and you’re for the Royals.”
The pattern continued in post-debate interviews in the media room.
“I saw it as a genuine question and I wanted to answer it genuinely,” Orman said. Of Roberts’ response, he said, “Again, I think it’s part of the sort of tired Washington attack that we can’t have civil discourse, that everything has to be an attack and I’d rather attack problems than people.”
In Roberts’ post-debate interview, he said, “I was going to congratulate him on him being an entrepreneur, been successful, somewhere around 70 million bucks.”
Roberts followed that with a lengthy criticism of Orman’s involvement in a federally subsidized Nevada shrimp farm and a hedge fund based in the Cayman Islands. “That’s not the kind of job creation that we need to get regulations off everybody’s back that are now pouring out of the Obama administration,” Roberts said.
Beatty said from where he sat on the debate stage, there was “no question that Roberts did not want to say something nice about Orman.”
And when he did pay Orman something of a compliment, “it’s not really saying something nice when you qualify it” like Roberts did, Beatty said.
Although it allowed him to question Orman’s business record, Roberts’ response to the say-something-nice question may have been jarring for voters who watched the debate, said Ken Ciboski, a professor of political science at Wichita State University.
“I don’t think it necessarily helps him,” said Ciboski, who is a Republican and active in party politics. “I thought the senator could have been a little more gracious than he was.”
He said he doesn’t know if the exchange will affect the election.
“It may not make that much difference,” he said. But, he added, “I think Kansans don’t like somebody who might be a little abrasive.”
Beatty would not directly say whether he thought Roberts hurt or helped himself.
He compared the moment to a 1976 debate in which then vice presidential candidate Bob Dole of Kansas came off as too aggressive, which his running mate, President Gerald Ford, later acknowledged hurt the campaign.
“Historically, being pleasant and being nice personally has come across better than being angry,” Beatty said.
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