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Stage is set for fall's election

Posted: July 30, 2014 - 12:16am

ATLANTA — Last week’s runoff ironed out the final details for the election four and a half months away, creating stark contrasts between candidates and clear choices for voters.

Last to be nailed down was the Senate ballot with David Perdue’s narrow victory over Jack Kingston in the Republican primary runoff. That choice comes down to two first-time candidates – Perdue and Democrat Michelle Nunn hoping to draw support from relatives whose political careers are over, and a third candidate who is the only one of the three to every hold office, Libertarian Amanda Swafford, who served one year on the Flowery Branch City Council.

Perdue and Nunn are both running as outsiders seeking to change things in Washington, but in different ways. Perdue hews to the GOP platform of cutting federal spending and taxes, repealing Obamacare and ending the current legislative stalemate as a loyal member of the Republican Caucus. Nunn’s version of change is to end acrimony by convincing Republicans to go along with the Democratic platform of “tax fairness,” increased spending on social programs such as education and fixing the problems with Obamacare without radically changing it. Swafford’s shoestring pitch is that she isn’t in either camp.

Perdue and Nunn present dramatically different philosophies, presenting the opportunity for a reasoned discussion of their pros and cons. But as was clear in the first moments after the runoff ended, that will not be the case. Both campaigns will talk about other things.

The Democrats who support Nunn immediately launched into an attack about Perdue’s wealth, supposed aloofness and actions taken by businesses he was part of, as if he were running for federal business manager rather than senator. And the Republicans quickly attacked Nunn for who she takes campaign donations from, her salary as a nonprofit executive and layoffs she ordered in that job, as if she would be federal personnel manager.

So, why not talk about the issues?

First, issues are more complicated than supposed character flaws. And second, voters’ opinions are often contradictory, creating a trap for candidates who are overly specific.

Consider that Perdue was haunted by candid comments he made early in the campaign about the Common Core education standards, gun control and federal finances. Statements from several occasions when he tried to frankly explain the nuances of his positions ended up wandering into the thickets of toxic phrases in the minds of tea party activists.

That’s why consultants craft a narrow campaign script for candidates and bully them into “staying on message.”

On the other hand, Nunn has been amazingly disciplined at staying on message, frustratingly so for reporters and opposition researchers. Her responses to most questions seeking specifics are that she wants to either study the issue more or that moderation and open-mindedness is what’s called for – without actually taking a position.

A third reason candidates remain vague about their views is they recognize they are sometimes in the minority. That’s Nunn’s problem when it comes to Obamacare and Perdue’s when talking about relaxing taxes on multi-national corporations.

They have reasons for their positions that they believe will benefit the majority of Georgians. It’s just that the majority of Georgians don’t see it that way, and trying to spend precious time and campaign resources to educate and alter public opinion is too risky. Such opinion shifts sometimes take generations, such as the gradual shift in views on gay rights or capital punishment.

In the end, candidates try to define themselves as loving family members, salt-of-the-earth types with ordinary aspirations in hopes that voters will fill in the blanks about philosophy with their own views.

The only saving grace in this maddening situation of doubletalk and innuendo is that at least the candidates themselves hate it, too.

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