Three of the seven candidates seeking the Republican nomination for Congress in Iowa’s Third District participated in a debate last night in Vinton, Iowa. The Benton County Advocates, a non-partisan group that tries to initiate discussion between the citizens of Benton County and the candidates running for office, organized the debate.
The event was limited to only three candidates, Dave Funk, Jim Gibbons, and Brad Zaun. The three candidates who were invited to participate in the debate were chosen based on the amount of money each candidate has raised thus far from individuals for their campaigns. Mark Rees, who has put $50,000 into his campaign and has more money on-hand that Zaun and Funk, was not allowed to participate because his money came from himself, not from other individuals.
About 20 people attended the 90-minute debate. The candidates were peppered with questions about everything from the national debt and national security, to our dependence on foreign oil. For the most part, the three candidates basically agreed on almost all of the issues. The only difference between the candidates at the debate was their delivery.
Not only did the candidates agree on most of the issues that were discussed, they were also very complimentary of each other. With the debate being limited to just the top three candidates, it provided an opportunity for the candidates to begin to draw contrasts between themselves and their opponents. Yet, nobody used the debate to go on the offensive.
Part of the reason for this may be because nobody really knows who the frontrunner is. Is the frontrunner Jim Gibbons who leads the field in fundraising? Or, is the frontrunner Brad Zaun, a well-known state senator? Both Gibbons and Zaun could feel comfortable with where they currently stand in the race, but that doesn’t explain why Dave Funk seemed content to just go along to get along.
Brad Zaun continues to push his populist message. While his opponents seem to offer more detailed positions, Zaun does very well at forums like the one last night. His simple, straightforward answers go over well with the audience. Zaun talked about what led him to run for city council, mayor, and then the state senate. Unlike the Iowa Politics forum a month ago, Zaun provided the audience with more facts and figures, which made him seem much more knowledgeable. I thought Zaun did very well in last night’s debate, especially in terms of delivery.
If Zaun is the populist in the race, then Dave Funk is the consistent constitutionalist. Time after time in the debate, Funk took each question that was asked of him and related it back to the whether or not the Constitution allows it and what the framers intended the role of government to be.
Funk’s approach is very appealing to some, but hearing him give basically the same answer over and over again throughout the debate makes one question how much depth he has on the issues that face our country today. If you are a farmer and are worried about what’s in the farm bill, Funk’s answer will probably be the same yet again – the federal government has no role to play except for interstate commerce. This answer doesn’t provide that farmer with much detail.
You have to give credit for Funk for being consistent and staying on message, but unless you are passionate about the constitution, he leaves you with very little to be excited about. I thought Funk struggled a little bit in this debate, but he did offer a very good line when he said, “Calling someone who comes into this country illegally an undocumented workers is like calling the drug dealer I arrested last week in Pleasant Hill last week an unlicensed pharmacist.”
Jim Gibbons looks, sounds, and acts like the frontrunner in the Third District race. His answers were well thought out and provided the audience with a sense that he has an understanding of the complex issues facing the country. Gibbons has also shown that he is the strongest social conservative in the race. While none of the questions asked in the debate dealt with social issues, Gibbons was the only candidate to talk about abortion and gay marriage. While Zaun has a more engaging personality, Gibbons has more depth as a candidate.
About an hour into the debate, the moderator had to swap tapes in the camcorder. The break provided some interesting interaction between those in the crowd and the candidates. One lady told the candidates that she would vote for any of the three candidates. A comment like that can be taken in a couple different ways. First, it is a complement to all three candidates, and a well deserved one at that. Yet, it also illustrates that the candidates need to start to differentiate themselves from their opponents.
With just six weeks until the primary, you would have thought that the candidates would have mixed it up more than they did last night. For candidates like Zaun and Funk who have limited financial resources, debates like the one last night provide the best opportunities to contrast themselves with Gibbons, who has the ability to run an extensive media campaign.
Time is running out for these candidates to differentiate themselves from one another. That task becomes even more difficult for the candidates with limited resources when a candidate like Gibbons begins to run radio and TV ads, which could begin any day now. For that reason alone, last night’s debate was a missed opportunity for Dave Funk and Brad Zaun.
Photo by Dave Davidson
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