Owens vs. Love – Full of Sound and Fury, Signifying Nothing

Democrat Doug Owens needed a decisive victory over his Republican opponent Mia Love in Tuesday night’s debate. He didn’t get it.

The televised debate didn’t do much, if anything, to change minds one way or the other. Republicans will think Love came away with the win. Democrats will say the same of Owens, and undecided voters will probably still be…well…undecided. Of course, if any voters in Utah’s 4th District are still truly undecided at this point, there’s probably not much either campaign can do to sway them one way or the other.

Many observers, including this one, expected Owens to come out swinging against Love. It makes sense that he would try that tactic. He’s trailing by 9 points with less than 3 weeks to go. He did attack a little, but it wasn’t enough to knock her off balance during the one-hour meeting at the University of Utah.

In the first half of the debate, Owens tried to hit Love repeatedly for her “extreme views,” saying he wouldn’t go to Washington to “just vote a party line.” But he let too many opportunities to land a big punch slip by him to secure the overall win. Owens landed a few body blows in the first 30 minutes, but not with enough force to knock Love off her footing.

A good example: In the first 15 minutes moderator Ken Verdoia threw out a question about gridlock in Washington. This should have been right in Owens wheelhouse, given his repeated attempts to tie Love to support of last year’s government shutdown. But, instead of seizing the moment and tearing into Love, Owens twice used his “not just vote a party line” criticism in the span of two minutes, while Love was able to get in a dig against Obamacare.

Love seemed to have learned her lesson from the first debate between the two, when Owens attacked her repeatedly during a joint appearance at the Utah Taxpayers Association conference. This time, Love was prepared for anything Owens could throw out against her. But, many times, that preparation sounded canned and over-rehearsed. In her opening statement, she threw out a bouncy, alliterative line about seeing “dollar signs, debt and deficits” coming out of Washington. It was a cute bit of writing, but it felt.

The second half of the debate, Owens seemed to lose his line of attack while Love found her footing. Owens often stumbled over lines in an effort to fit every policy point in his limited time to answer questions.

The biggest potential flashpoint between the two candidates is Love’s call to eliminate the federal department of education. When the subject turned to the affordability of higher education, Owens jumped on Love, accusing her of wanting to eliminate the federal student loan program, which would put college out of reach for many low-income students.

Love countered that she did not say that (to be fair, she has called for an end to all federal “student aid” programs), explaining that an “unlimited flow of federal dollars into higher education” has driven up the cost of higher education.

When Owens was given a chance to rebut Love on that very point, he whiffed, letting her statement sit there unchallenged. It was only a few minutes later when Owens was given a chance to answer a completely unrelated question did he circle back to the issue of Mia Love and student loans.

Embarrassingly, Owens’ “rapid response” team actually beat him to the punch, sending out an email blast to reporters about Love’s position on student loans a few minutes before he was able to get his point across.

Tuesday’s meeting was most likely a draw, or a slight win for Love. Owens probably didn’t do what he needed to close the gap, and Love wasn’t able to put him away. But Love didn’t need a knockout punch…while Owens needed to flip the script in order to give himself a fighting chance come 3 weeks.

Maybe Love made some progress shoring up support among Republicans who voted for Jim Matheson. It’s hard to tell who Owens was able to sway to his side.

Life, and political careers, can often be defined by opportunities…especially the ones that are missed.