At this point in any campaign cycle, the candidates have likely debated so many times that the questions are predictable, and the answers are almost rote.
However, the televised face-off between Mayor Ralph Becker and challenger Jackie Biskupski on KSL TV Wednesday afternoon was different if only because the event deviated from the tired question/response/rebuttal with small time limits. Moderator Doug Wright was given the freedom to follow up and engage the two in conversation if he felt the question warranted it.
When the topic of the prison relocation came up, Wright correctly sensed the disagreement between the two and took off the temporal shackles.
Biskupski started by accusing Becker of selling out the city as the new site of the prison in exchange for a tax hike. She also said Mayor Becker has backed off of possibly filing suit against the state to stop the prison.
"The prison is coming. What we get in return is a sales tax increase. That's the kind of deal-brokering that went on during the session that can't be ignored."
When it was his turn, Becker turned to a response that he's given hundreds of times, vehemently denying he was involved in any negotiations over the prison relocation and that he will continue to find ways to fight the decision.
If this were a run-of-the-mill debate, that would be that. On to the next question. Not this time.
Wright, sensing Biskupski had more to say on the matter came back to her for a response.
"There are other legislators who I have been in contact with who tell me that conversations (between lawmakers and the Mayor's office) were happening," she shot back. "No Republican lawmaker will give you a tax increase unless you ask for it, and you don't ask for something unless you're negotiating."
That clearly got under Becker's skin, his voice rising during his turn.
"My opponent is accusing me of something that did not happen. I made it very clear to them (the Legislature) that under no terms did we want the prison coming here. My position has been consistent."
Our latest poll suggests this election is going to be close – maybe within two or three percentage points. Any chance to draw a difference between the candidates can help those undecided voters make a final decision.
The rest of the debate performance was solid by both candidates. There were a lot of topics where the two were in agreement, and a few that drew sharp differences. They both agree that the city needs to do more to crack down on aggressive panhandling in downtown Salt Lake. They are on the same page that there's more to be done to help the homeless population.
They support Prop. 1, which is a sales tax increase to fund transportation, but they're at odds on how to spend that money. Biskupski has floated the idea of the city starting a bus service to fill in the gaps left by the Utah Transit Authority. Becker says that would only create another level of bureaucracy that taxpayers should not have to pay for.
Perhaps the best exchange came from a question about campaign finance reforms. Becker used the opportunity to take a shot at Biskupski and Reagan Outdoor Advertising. The billboard company made $100,000 of independent expenditures during the primary election against Becker.
"When someone pours that much money into a race, it skews the contest and produces undue influence," said Becker.
Biskupski wasn't having it, responding with an attack of her own on how much money Becker is spending on television ads.
"As usual, the Mayor is trying to taint my character," she said. "I had nothing to do with these billboards. However, when you spend close to a half-million dollars on television ads, it makes it difficult for people who don't have money to run for office."
While it lacked the spectacle of a primetime cable TV debate, it was a mostly solid discussion of politics and policy.
Did it change any minds? That remains to be seen. Vote-by-mail ballots are in the hands of voters now, and Election officials say most of them will be returned in the final week before election day.