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The Utah political universe is buzzing about the first Mia Love/Doug Owens debate.

 

Democrats are cheered because they saw one of their own show a little backbone for once. Republicans are wary because Owens was able to expose a little chink in the armor of an otherwise powerful candidate.

Don’t expect it to last.

Debates are the best way for an underfunded or underdog candidate to get some attention and inflict some damage on their opponent. Owens did both, hoping to build momentum for his bid to replace Jim Matheson.

If Love (and her campaign team) is smart, they won’t allow it to happen again.

Let’s jump into the “way-back” machine and travel back to 2012. Upstart Republican Dan Liljenquist was desperately trying to gain some traction for his bid to unseat Sen. Orrin Hatch. His campaign team was itching to set up multiple debates against Hatch. They were hoping the visual of a young, dynamic Liljenquist against an elderly Hatch would help sway primary voters in their direction.

That didn’t happen. Hatch’s team played “keep away” from Lilenquist - refusing to engage with him except for one radio debate with no visuals.

You’ll remember Hatch’s campaign manager in 2012 was Dave Hansen. That’s the exact same Dave Hansen who is running Love’s campaign this time around.

Call it the “Kennedy/Nixon” effect. In 1960, a debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon was simulcast on television and radio. Those who listened to the debate thought Nixon won, but those who watched the debate gave the win to Kennedy.

I’m certain Owens and his supporters have visions dancing in their heads of him scoring one rhetorical victory after another in a series of debates that will eventually lead to him securing an upset win in November.

“Winning” debates is a great way to attract attention to your campaign. Attention brings support...and dollars. As everybody knows, money is the lifeblood of any political campaign.

That’s the most plausible path to victory for Owens. He won’t be able to compete with Love’s money advantage, meaning she will be able to bury him with television and radio ads. Money allows you to run the kind of campaign you want to instead of having to make hard choices about where to spend your limited resources.

Love would be a fool if she enabled Owens like that.

This is not to say Owens is a flawed candidate. He aquitted himself nicely against Love on Tuesday.

But Love is basically playing the role of the incumbent in 2014 - even though it’s an open seat.

She has better name recognition than Owens. She has more money. Most importantly, she has the letter “R” next to her name on the ballot.

Owens needs everything to fall in place perfectly if he’s going to beat Love.

It would be a huge unforced error by Love to give Owens more chances to score points aganist her.

I expect Love to become a moving target for Owens - agreeing to a limited number of debates, and those will only be late in the cycle when it may be too late for Owens to make a move. Owens will cry foul and try to shame Love into engaging more. If she gets good guidance, she won’t.

Here’s where it gets tricky for Owens. He has to bait Love into responding to him without sounding shrill or looking desperate.

Love needs to make this the most boring campaign ever. Reduce unpredictability. That means giving Owens very few opportunities to directly engage with her.

Owens needs to force himself into the conversation. It’s going to be extremely difficult to do that, especially after his decent performance against Love on Tuesday.