Final Love/Owens Debate a Fiesty Affair

“Oh, there you go again.”

No, it was not the ghost of Ronald Reagan, channeling the former “Great Communicator” comments to Jimmy Carter in the contentious 1980 presidential race.

It was Mia Love on KSL Radio’s Doug Wright Show Thursday morning complaining that her Democratic opponent Doug Owens was “attacking” her over “extreme” political positions she has never taken.

This, the last face-to-face debate between the two 4th Congressional District opponents, had – as the other two did – no great foul-ups, no miscues that the candidates will have to clarify or back away from later.

But there were sparks inside Wright’s tightly sealed radio room.

(Owens told UtahPolicy before the debate that he had no preconceived plan to take after Love, the race leader in money and polling. “You go with the moment; see how it feels,” said Owens.)

And as Owens criticized some of Love’s positions – positions that often were taken two years ago when she ran her first big race, then against retiring Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah – she used Reagan’s counter, or verbiage similar to it.

Once she even interrupted Owens mid-sentence to say, “I have not!” to one of his charges against her.

But it needs be said this year’s Love-Owens race isn’t even near some of the negative, even nasty, political contests we’ve seen around here in the past.

It’s certainly tamer than the 2012 Matheson-Love race, which saw millions of dollars in negative advertising pouring into Utah.

The sharpest exchange came when Owens said that Love proposed to do away with federal student loans for college students.

“There are currently private loans” available to qualifying college students, said Owens, after Love said the feds were controlling high education loans.

“My opponent called for eliminating federal loans. . .”

“I did not!”, interrupted Love.

“It is one thing to change your position,” said Owens to Love. “Another to deny what you said.”

“Voters are not getting straight answers” from Love, countered Owens.

Love said Owens has been running video outtakes showing her saying this or that, and then blurring what was really said.

But he hasn’t done that on the student loan issue because she never said she wanted to do away with student loans, Love argued.

Yes, she said, she wants to “open up” the student loan market, so private lending institutions can compete with the federal government to provide such loans.

But she never said she wants to do away with student loans, or even federal student loans, she added.

“I want to do away with the federal (loan) monopoly,” she said.

A decade ago, for example, local businesses leaders could participate in locally-backed loans to students, and guide degrees and education into job areas those businesses needed. That is gone now, said Love.

Several times Owens returned to Love’s two-years-ago taped comment that she wants to do away with the federal Department of Education.

(This comment is undisputed, since she is on tape saying it.)

Utah schools get $30 million a year in federal money, mainly in Title I low-income aid, from the federal department, and those schools can’t afford to lose it, or Utah children will suffer, Owens said.

Love said she doesn’t want, necessarily, to give up those federal dollars. But she wants any federal money not to tie the hands of Utah school administrators and teachers.

After Owens repeated her anti-federal student loan stand, Love said: “Again, just because my opponent wants you to believe something about me, it’s not so.

“He has no clips of me” saying she wants to end student loans. “He’s making this up as he goes along.”

“I’m about bringing the poorest among us into higher education,” said Love.

While this is radio, not TV, the candidates were aware that several TV stations were taping the whole debate, and media reporters were watching it first-hand outside of the studio, looking through the triple-pane, soundproof windows.

Both candidates worked at times from notes. Love read her opening and closing statements from scripts.

Owens referred to his notes, but more often winged his responses.

At times, it appeared that Love campaign staffers were texting her messages, perhaps sentences of encouragement or small reminders.

In any case, Love performed well – as did Owens.

She was calm and collected. Several times she made joking responses with people watching from outside the broadcast studio; big smiles, which she’s known for.

Owens has to be one of the most laid back candidates ever, one would think he was debating his children or wife on a topic, rather than before the hot lights of the media.

After Love several times said that you don’t want to send Owens to Congress, he just attacks people who don’t agree with him, Owens said that like his father – the late Wayne Owens, who held a U.S. House seat 20 years ago – he can work across the aisle to get things done.

“I’m not attacking her personally,” said Owens, “only on how we stand on different issues. The voters deserve nothing else.”

Perhaps 35 percent of 4th District voters will cast early ballots this year – either through mail-in ballots or through early voting in polling places around the district.

And considering the Wright show is broadcast live weekday mornings, most likely fewer than 50 percent of 4th District voters were in play Thursday.

The main points each candidate tried to make:

— Love’s views “are extreme,” said Owens, and don’t reflect Utah values.

— She’s not extreme,” said Love.

What’s extreme is Owens’ constant distortions of her stands on issues.

“I talk about what I want to get done. He talks about me. Utahns find that extreme.”