There are plenty of ways to look at who won or lost last week's gubernatorial debate between the four Republican candidates.
On pure style points, I think Jim Oberweis won big. His performance was positively Reaganesque. Oberweis had the Gipper's head movements down pat, but also his forthrightness and optimism, his overly simplistic solutions (Obie dipped into that billion dollar "corruption tax" idea of his for several billion dollars worth of spending) and the classic use of a real person to make a very good point (a trucking company owner who promised to move back to Illinois if Oberweis is elected).
Winning a debate doesn't mean winning the actual debate, however. Vastly more people saw the media coverage of the debate than watched it, so the filter is king. Oberweis is not beloved by reporters (for good reason), so his coverage was fair, but not exactly glowing.
State Senator Bill Brady, with his youthful TV-ready looks, performed better than some expected, and that got him some very good coverage. Like George W. Bush has done so often, Brady successfully played down his hard-right stances by using middle of the road imagery, strong anti-tax rhetoric, an adherence to principle above all else and quiet optimism.
Brady won another major point, or, rather, Oberweis lost. Since Brady surprised some observers with his performance and will likely get more good write-ups as a result, it will be that much tougher for Oberweis to push him out of the race or marginalize his fellow conservative out of existence.
For weeks now, Oberweis has claimed that this is a two-person contest between himself and Judy Baar Topinka. But instead of ignoring Brady, Oberweis made the critical mistake of debating him one-on-one earlier in the day at a City Club function. Bad move.
Brady, likely upset with the way Oberweis has tried to push him aside, unleashed a torrent of criticism at Oberweis during the early debate for being a flip-flopper on guns, abortion and ethanol and for being way too scary on immigration issues. Oberweis will now have to contend with at least the impression of a possibly surging Bill Brady, who is after the same conservative votes as he is, while he tries to gain ground on Topinka.
Judy Baar Topinka's folksy demeanor, her insistence that the state needs an "adult" in the governor's mansion, her statement that any of the Republicans on the stage would be a better governor than Rod Blagojevich - with the humorous kicker, "that's depressing" - all showed what sort of campaign she will run.
Topinka also avoided answering pointed questions and didn't get all that specific, which is a basic frontrunner tactic that she won't abandon unless forced to by her opponents or the media.
Stylistically, she looked way too often at her notes instead of the camera, but that unfortunate habit can be overcome. She also refused to overtly pile on Ron Gidwitz when Gidwitz was asked about his alleged slum property in Joliet, but managed a sly dig by cracking, "This is Ron's problem and not mine." It was good TV.
Nobody really laid a glove on Topinka during the debate itself, so the usual expectation is that since the frontrunner didn't lose, she won.
Oberweis and Ron Gidwitz waited until after the debate to attack Topinka, undoubtedly understanding that three men ganging up on a woman all at once wouldn't look too good. Some of that was covered in the media, but so early in the campaign that most voters won't even bother to read the debate stories, or will barely skim them. Without a truly big strike against her, and with Oberweis and Brady now locked into a death match, Topinka wins this round.
Ron Gidwitz was a mess. He didn't explain his highly detailed positions very well, he stammered, he looked bad on camera and he droned on and on about the number of associations he has been involved with and the number of task forces and committees he has chaired. The Gidwitz campaign has tried to "introduce" their candidate to the voters for months without success. It's time to switch tactics and try to break out of the pack. Instead of looking like a leader, Gidwitz came across as a well-dressed bureaucrat. Not a good night.
Score this Topinka, Brady, Oberweis and then Gidwitz.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter. He can be reached at thecapitolfaxblog.com