5 takeaways from Tuesday night’s Democratic RI gov. debate

Raimondo Taveras Pell June 2014 debateThe top three Democratic candidates for governor – Angel Taveras, Gina Raimondo and Clay Pell – met Tuesday night for their first TV debate of the primary campaign. For a full recap of what they said, check out Dan McGowan’s full story on WPRI.com. The full video of the entire 60-minute debate is online here.

Here are five quick takeaways from this first primary debate of the season.

1. Nobody bombed. Supporters of the three candidates will point to the best moments each of them had and the occasional stumbles of their rivals, but the truth is there didn’t appear to be any really bad moments that will become a major post-debate headache for their campaigns. Particularly in the first debate, when the candidates are still trying to get their sea legs, they likely have the Hippocratic oath in mind: “First, do no harm.” As WPRI 12 political analyst Joe Fleming put it, “I would say they all held their own tonight. But nobody had a knock-out punch.”

2. Clay Pell threw some punches. The 32-year-old political newcomer, far behind in the polls after months of bad press over his missing car, needs to change the dynamic in the race. Tonight was his first big chance to do that, and he did his best to make an impression – partly by raising questions about his rivals. He dismissed Raimondo and Taveras as “two elected officials,” while saying of himself, “I am not a politician.” He argued Raimondo’s pension efforts can’t be called a success as long as litigation continues, and he slammed Taveras for saying a $10.10 minimum wage shouldn’t be phased in until 2018. One question: how did his aggressiveness play in voters’ living rooms?

3. They agree on almost everything. Except, obviously, who should be elected governor. They agree on raising the minimum wage, spending more on infrastructure, promoting tourism, paying the 38 Studios bonds, not holding a constitutional convention, legalizing marijuana, keeping abortion legal, and even making calamari the state appetizer. As RIPR’s Scott MacKay pointed out, “the policy and political differences were mostly those of insider issue nuance.” Pell and Raimondo said they’ll order an independent, RISDIC-style commission to probe 38 Studios if elected; Taveras said he’ll do so if other avenues don’t provide enough answers. Pell was also the lone candidate to come out against the House budget’s estate-tax cut and to support the pending bill that limits teacher evaluations. Overall, though, tonight’s debate made the contest seem to be mostly about biographies and leadership styles.

4. Raimondo is already under fire. The treasurer wasn’t the frontrunner in the most recent WPRI 12/Providence Journal poll, but you might have thought otherwise based on this evening’s debate. Though she kept her cool, Raimondo found herself on the defensive over her handling of the 2011 pension law and her campaign contributions from the financial sector. Taveras, by contrast, took little targeted fire from Pell or Raimondo, and both the mayor and the treasurer seemed mostly intent on ignoring their younger opponent. One reason for that: Raimondo’s biggest accomplishment as treasurer, the pension law, is also an issue that angers some voters Taveras and Pell are trying to woo. Also, they’re aware of the benefits she will have down the stretch from her huge campaign war chest.

5. Taveras is stuck in the middle. Before Pell entered the race, it seemed like Taveras could win the primary just by painting himself as a friendlier version of Raimondo – a good steward of public finances, but one who doesn’t make people angry. Pell’s entry, however, is presenting a challenge to Taveras from the left – in two of the rare examples of policy differences tonight, the mayor and the treasurer were joined together in support of the estate-tax cut and in opposition to delaying teacher evaluations. The mayor’s responses to two questions – on investigating 38 Studios and the estate tax – showed how his penchant for honesty can lead to lengthy answers that lack punch. Regardless, Pell’s emphatic statement that he will stay in the race through Sept. 9 suggests the mayor will have to keep working to resonate as the middle-ground alternative.

6. Eric Cantor lost. Unbelievable!

Ted Nesi ( tnesi@wpri.com ) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com and writes the Nesi’s Notes blog. Follow him on Twitter: @tednesi

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