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Jill Stein won the debate

THURSDAY, OCTOBER 10, 2002 --There are two key questions in a five-person debate: who won the debate and who does that benefit? Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate, won last night’s debate, but it’s unclear who benefits -- although at first blush it would probably be Republican Mitt Romney.

The reason Stein won is that unlike the other candidates not usually included in debates -- Libertarian Carla Howell and Independent Barbara Johnson -- Stein provided a different and unique perspective within the confines of the debate format. When both Romney and Democrat Shannon O’Brien began to bicker about who was the best financial manager, Stein interjected "the issues before the voters are not simply being a better bureaucrat or who can be the best money manager... There are profound issues that we have not been able to deal with in spite of a booming economy." Such as health care and the structural shift in a service economy. She was the only candidate to make an explicit plea on behalf of the striking janitorial workers -- a hot issue that’s been all but ignored by Romney and O’Brien. And she took on both Howell and Romney on their statistics and figures. She was particularly effective in taking on Romney’s strong stance in favor of ending bilingual education in Massachusetss -- a typical Green answer rife with sensititivies. "As a medical doctor and as an educator myself...I’m aware that many kids have different styles of learning," Stein said.

That’s what made Romney’s response so disappointing. "Carla, I agree," said Romney, then quickly corrected himself. "Excuse me. I’m sorry. Excuse me." Stein’s answer couldn’t have been more different both in tone and in substance to the responses Howell ("small government is beautiful") had been giving all night. Asked about unemployment benefits for the jobless, Howell even gave the following answer straight out of Oliver Twist "no free lunch."

Generally, a good performance by a Green would hurt the Democratic candidate. In this race where O’Brien never won over supporters of Clean Elections candidate Warren Tolman and former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, that would seem to be even more the case. But Romney’s faux pas seemed to suggest a candidate who could not be bothered to listen to the differences between the Greens and the Libertarians. You can almost imagine Romney’s handlers telling him not to worry about candidates other than O’Brien. If a candidate is attacking you, it will probably be Howell, they would likely have briefed him. The reason the Stein performance might hurt him is that she spoke so earnestly and with such little rancor, I can imagine voters being put off at his mistake.

Following the debate, I asked Romney whether he indeed knew the differences and could identify each party’s candidate. He didn’t like the question and tried to take a page out of George Bush’s book and evade it by pretending not to understand the question. "I’m sorry... I don’t know if I’m going to be able. You want to narrow your question on that. What’s the difference between the Green party and the Libertarian party? There’s a very substantial difference."

So I humored him: "There was a moment of confusion when you seem to call on one and get --," I said, making everyone, including the television reporters present, all aware of exactly what I was talking about. "Oh, I’m sorry, I called Jill Stein by Carla’s name, allright." The parties are "actually quite opposite," he said.

Of course, O’Brien, lacking any subtlety at all, couldn’t wait to bring up the exchange when asked to respond to Romney’s characterization of her as "whining" at another point in the debate. "Well, I think, he also got mixed up with a couple of the women up here tonight," said O'Brien. "I think that’s a pretty typical response from someone who really doesn’t want to hear from a woman who understands state government." We probably would have all understood that even if O’Brien didn’t bring it up.

When the reporters had mostly left and the candidates departed, O’Brien campaign manager Dwight Robson got into a heated debate with Romney adviser Charley Manning. The argument devolved into a discussion of which candidate, Romney or O’Brien, possessed uglier ties to business. Stein happened to be standing near-by. "Clearly this is not what the voters of Massachusetts need to be focused on," said Stein. "This is of interest that this is how the campaigns are spending their time, bickering about their corporate connections."

Stein looked good last night, but it’s a wash whether it hurt Romney or O’Brien more.

What do you think? Send an e-mail to letters[a]

Issue Date: October 10, 2002
"Today's Jolt" archives: 2002  2001

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