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May 21st, 2010

Republican Gubernatorial Candidates Debate One Last Time

The three Republican candidates for Governor participated the final debate before the June 8th primary yesterday. The debate was sponsored by the Des Moines Register and was broadcast on Iowa Public Television. The Register’s political columnist Kathie Obradovich, Radio Iowa’s Kay Henderson, and Dean Borg from Iowa Press moderated the debate.

The final debate was the best out the three debates that the candidates have participated in. Not only was the set and production level far superior to the previous debates, but the fast-paced format allowed the candidates to be asked a wide range of questions. The Register should be commended for the quality of yesterday’s debate.

Once again, Bob Vander Plaats was the most aggressive candidate on the stage. Whenever an opportunity arose to attack Branstad, he took it. While Vander Plaats was aggressive, he failed to land the deadly blow his campaign would need to make a dynamic change in the race.

While the frequency of attacks from Vander Plaats increased, most of them were either inconsequential. For example, Vander Plaats insisted that Branstad told him on March 14, 2000, that the best way to defeat an incumbent is to not have a record. Vander Plaats also brought up Branstad’s selection of Joy Corning to be his running-mate during his previous tenure as governor.

Vander Plaats’ best line of attack came during the time when candidates could ask each other questions. Vander Plaats spewed out a list of tax increases that Branstad was responsible for, and then asked him why Iowans should trust him with their wallets once again.

Branstad claimed that Vander Plaats was parroting talking points from the liberal groups who are attacking him. While Branstad’s answer worked in terms of moving the debate along to a different topic, Branstad has yet to defend his record when directly confronted by Vander Platts.

Vander Plaats also challenged Branstad over the tax exemption for machinery and equipment previously signed into law by Branstad. Vander Plaats alleged that the tax cut was good for businesses but bad for property tax payers because the state didn’t help local government’s backfill for the lost revenue. Branstad said that Vander Plaats did not know what he was talking about and insisted that, had that been the case, there is no way the bill would have had enough support to pass in the legislature.

While Vander Plaats was aggressive, Branstad seemed much more confident than in previous debates. Branstad excelled under the format in this debate. There were no commercial breaks, the questions were short and to the point, and the debate moved swiftly.

Even though Branstad doesn’t need to be the aggressor in these debates, he was successful in painting Vander Plaats as a naïve candidate who lacks the experience to lead the state. This was the most apparent when the candidates were asked whether or not they would have a litmus test for judges.

Both Vander Plaats and Roberts said that they would, but Branstad rightly explained that the system of nominating judges in Iowa doesn’t give the governor the power to appoint whomever they want. Instead, the governor must pick one of three nominees that are given to him/her from the judicial nomination committee.

In the press availability after the debate, asked Vander Plaats what he would do if the three judges that were presented to him didn’t comply with his litmus test. He failed to provide a direct answer and ultimately said he would cross that bridge when he gets to it.

Branstad was on his game yesterday. In the candidate-to-candidate questions, Rod Roberts asked Branstad if he would join him in pledging not to raises taxes. Branstad said, “Not only will I join you, but I will work to reduce taxes where ever possible.”

Branstad also showed some political savvy when he chose to ask Roberts a question instead of Vander Plaats. I thought Branstad’s question to Roberts was odd at first. He asked Roberts which legislative leader he admired most, and which leader was the most disappointing to work with during his ten years in the legislature.

Roberts said that former Speaker of the House Brent Siegrist was the leader he most admired, while current Speaker Pat Murphy was the most disappointing. When Branstad got to respond, he railed against Murphy and the Democrats and used it as an opportunity to talk about union issues. It was the only time union issues were addressed in the debate.

What seemed like an odd question served two purposes for Branstad. First, the question he asked was going to generate a predictable answer – of course Roberts would be the most disappointed with a Democrat. That allowed Branstad the ability to speak to issues that were not mentioned in the debate.

Secondly, by asking Roberts and question and not Vander Plaats, there was no way for Vander Plaats to turn the question around on him or make it appear that he was attacking Vander Plaats. If that had occurred, the Vander Plaats people would have said that Branstad is worried about Vander Plaats and is obviously in trouble in the polls.

When asked to name two things they would cut from the budget, Vander Plaats used his time to talk about what the state spends on illegal immigrants. It’s a solid and timely answer, but the Legislative Services Agency report that that listed the costs of illegal immigration in Iowa has come under fire from the Register in recent days.

Branstad, on the other hand, said that he would not give any state aid to Planned Parenthood. It’s an answer that Branstad has given before in debates, and it’s a good one. Not only does it play well with the base of the Republican Party, but it counters the basic claim that Branstad isn’t a social conservative.

Roberts has gone out of his way to stay out of the bickering going on between Branstad and Vander Plaats. Roberts’ debate performance was solid. He gave some excellent answers, but the debate isn’t going to be remembered for anything that he said or did.

While Roberts remains above the fray, he also remains nearly invisible in these debates. Still, the amount of good will that Roberts has built up during the course of the campaign means that he will be on the shortlist for the Lt. Governor nomination should he not win on June 8th.

All things considered, this debate belonged to Branstad. He handled everything that Vander Plaats threw is way in a very dignified way. He showed plenty of passion and the willingness to get aggressive himself at times. Branstad also used the debate to talk about the issues that he wanted to address, not what the moderators or his opponents wanted to discuss.

The debate seemed to line up perfectly for Branstad. There were numerous times when he provided a good answer, only to have Roberts echo his sentiments. Had it been the other way around, Branstad would have looked bad. Part of the reason why the debate seemed to go so well for Branstad was because Vander Plaats missed on some answers.

Photo By Dave Davidson

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About the Author

Craig Robinson

Craig Robinson is the founder and editor-in-chief of, a political news and commentary site he launched in March of 2009. Robinson’s political analysis is respected across party lines, which has allowed him to build a good rapport with journalist across the country.

Robinson has also been featured on Iowa Public Television’s Iowa Press, ABC’s This Week, and other local television and radio programs. Campaign’s & Elections Magazine recognized Robinson as one of the top influencers of the 2012 Iowa Caucuses.

A 2013 Politico article sited Robinson and as the “premier example” of Republican operatives across the country starting up their own political news sites. His website has been repeatedly praised as the best political blog in Iowa by the Washington Post, and in January of 2015, Politico included him on the list of local reporters that matter in the early presidential states.

Robinson got his first taste of Iowa politics in 1999 while serving as Steve Forbes’ southeast Iowa field coordinator where he was responsible for organizing 27 Iowa counties. In 2007, Robinson served as the Political Director of the Republican Party of Iowa where he was responsible for organizing the 2007 Iowa Straw Poll and the 2008 First-in-the-Nation Iowa Caucuses. Following the caucuses, he created his own political news and commentary site,

Robinson is also the President of Global Intermediate, a national mail and political communications firm with offices in West Des Moines, Iowa, and Washington, D.C. Robinson utilizes his fundraising and communications background to service Global’s growing client roster with digital and print marketing.

Robinson is a native of Goose Lake, Iowa, and a 1999 graduate of St. Ambrose University in Davenport, where he earned degrees in history and political science. Robinson lives in Ankeny, Iowa, with his wife, Amanda, and son, Luke. He is an active member of the Lutheran Church of Hope.

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