Third GOP debate is history

The third and final debate among the three Republicans who hope to win the GOP’s 2010 nomination for governor was held over the noonhour today.  (Watch it here.) If this were another era, two of the candidates may have agreed to a duel.  Instead, Sioux City business consultant Bob Vander Plaats and former Governor Terry Branstad engaged in verbal combat.  The third candidate, State Representative Rod Roberts, gave one of the most theatrical eye-rolls I’ve seen as the other two engaged.   Here’s the Radio Iowa story, complete with an account of something that still stopped short of the “You lie!” outburst during President Obama’s 2010 State of the Union message.

The debate was staged in the studio at Iowa Public Television that has an auditorium, but the crowd was asked to sit silently.  The Des Moines Register organized the debate and invited me to be among the three panelists.  As the three candidates stood and we three panelists sat waiting for the show to go on, I asked the three men if they were wearing a lucky tie.  (Getting the candidates to talk helps the sound guy check audio levels, BTW.)  Rod Roberts piped up first, saying he likes to wear either red or pale blue ties, and opted for a tie with a pale blue stripe today.  Terry Branstad — who was wearing a red tie — chimed in, telling about the time several years ago when he wore a certain tie to a debate that was identical to the one being worn by Dean Borg, the “Iowa Press” host who was also one of today’s panelists (and who was host of that other debate years ago).  After the reminiscing about that beloved tie died down, I asked Bpb Vander Plaats about his tie, which was blue and gold striped.   BVP said it was what was in his closet, then added: “going for the gold.”

The debate began shortly after noon with a question about tax incentives, another about regulation and a third about immigration.  Then came the candidate-to-candidate questions.  Roberts asked Branstad if he’d take a “no new taxes” pledge.  Branstad said yes, adding he would reduce taxes, then he talked about his record on taxes.  Roberts, in a rebuttal, touted the benefits of tax cutting.

Vander Plaats was next up, and he posed his question to Branstad, suggesting he kept “two sets of books” as governor and increased the size of the state budget by 2.5 times.  “Why should Iowans trust you with their wallet again?”  Vander Plaats asked in conclusion.

Branstad accused Vander Plaats of making “false accusations” and he touted the spending limitations he approved as governor.   BVP had mentioned he has the endorsement of former Republican State Auditor Dick Johnson and Branstad countered that he has the endorsement of the current Republican State Auditor, Dave Vaudt.

BVP responded: “I used to teach accounting and a political endorsement I don’t think trumps professional judgment.”  The two quibbled about past history of the state law which limits spending to 99 percent of state tax collections.

Branstad then had a chance to ask a rival a question and he did not go brickbat.  He asked Roberts a softball instead:  “Of the people you’ve served with in leadership, who do you admire most and who do you think was the least effective?”

If you know your way around the statehouse, here are the two people Roberts listed:  Brent Siegrist and Pat Murphy.  Roberts did weave in a bit of personal story here, sharing a bit of his legislative resume during this answer.

After the candidate-to-candidate questions, we panelists started asking questions again.  Kathie Obradovich of The Des Moines Register asked the candidates to name a political mistake they’d made and what they learned from it.  This is where the liar-liar portion of the show happened.

The next question:  would they feel obligated, as governor, to implement the RPI platform?  Branstad and Roberts said they’d be governors of all the people.  Vander Plaats used the question to lob a volley at Branstad over Branstad’s 1990 and 1994 running-mate, Joy Corning.  Branstad defended Corning, then talked a bit about how he would choose a running mate for 2010.

Each was asked to name their closest advisor and — you guessed it — they all said their wives.  Roberts and Vander Plaats listed a few other people in their inner circle.  Branstad, when it was his turn, was challenged to name a single person and he stuck with Chris, his wife.  “I think she’s number one.”

A follow-up:  the last four lieutenant governors in Iowa have been women — should the next one be a woman?  Not necessarily, Branstad said.  BVP brought up Joy Corning again.  Roberts said not necessarily, too, but added he’d be focused on “inner” qualities.

The candidates were asked to name two state programs they’d cut.  They were asked how they’d reduce residential property taxes.  They were asked how they’d find more money to fix the state’s roads and bridges.

After those three questions, it was time for the lightning round in which the candidates were challenged to answer yes or no, but they were given a chance to utter a sentence of explanation.  The candidates were asked the following:

Would they assert state’s rights and refuse to participate in the national health care reform plan? (All three said yes.  Something odd happened, too, as Branstad paused — searching for a phase — BVP in a low voice supplies Branstad with “the attorney general” and Branstad took the cue and finished up.)

Would they press for a state law that would require women view an ultrasound before they get an abortion?  (All three said yes.)

When appointing judges, will you require that they be against gay marriage and abortion.  (Roberts simply said yes.  BVP said yes, and added the justices had to understand the constitution.  Branstad gave a process answer, explaining a judicial nominating commission submits the names of two potential candidates to the governor and he or she has to choose from those two.  “They may not share that view,” Branstad warned.)

Should voters oppose retention of Iowa Supreme Court Justices because of the gay marriage ruling?  (BVP said yes, urging Iowans to “vote them off the island” when it comes to the justices.  Branstad didn’t give a yes or no answer, saying it was up to Iowans before adding:  “I’m running for governor,” Bransa said. “I’m not running to try to be the supreme over the Supreme Court.”  Roberts said yes, vote no on retention.)

Should Iowa have fewer than 99 counties?  (Branstad talked for a while about the difficulty in making that change.  When pressed, Branstad said yes.  Roberts said there may be “a different number in the future” once Iowans have had a conversation about reducing the size of government.  BVP said state govt needs to first get its house in order, but added it’s a “local control” issue.)

Would you forbid same-sex couples from adopting or becoming foster parents?  (Roberts said yes.  BVP said yes, adding it was a “mistake in the ’90s” to allow it.  Branstad said adoption should be in the best interest of the child and “generally” that means by a male/female couple.)

Would you favor reducing the size of the legislature and the number of judges on the Iowa Supreme Court and the Iowa Court of Appeals?   (BVP & Branstad said yes to both.  Roberts said yes to downsizing size of legislature, but advocated increasing size of Supreme Court from seven to nine justices.)

Would you favor reinstatement of the death penalty?  (Branstad yes, in limited circumstances.  Roberts no, because innocent people could be executed.  BVP said yes.)

Would you push for repeal of the minimum wage in Iowa? (All three said no.  The RPI platform, by the way, calls for abolishing the minimum wage.)

There were two final questions.  Obradovich asked the candidates to talk a bit more about the “litmus test” for Supreme Court justices.  The last question (from me) was about the abortion issue, asking whether abortion would be a “major issue” they’d press should they be the GOP nominee.

“I think it’s always an issue,” Branstad said, adding his daughter and daughter-in-law will both have babies this year.  “I’m very pro-life.”

Roberts said he had been a “100 percent, consistent, pro-life legislator,” and he said “people do hold very strong feelings both for and opposed to this.”

Vander Plaats said Culver’s “definitely on the wrong side of this issue.”  BVP said abortion will be a “big issue” in the fall election, along with gay marriage.

At this point the candidates were given 30 seconds each to deliver closing statements.  About an hour had passed and the debate was over.

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About O.Kay Henderson

O. Kay Henderson is the news director of Radio Iowa.


  1. i have never been a fan of Bad Politics and bad policies in the government. they always present bad news.””‘