Jan Brewer debate gaffe: How badly will it hurt her chances?

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer stumbled badly at the beginning of a gubernatorial debate Wednesday. But Brewer is a Republican in a conservative state, so the damage may be limited.

Matt York/AP
From left, Libertarian gubernatorial candidate Barry Hess, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, moderator Ted Simons, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry Goddard, and Green Party candidate Larry Gist go over rules prior to a televised Arizona gubernatorial debate Wednesday in Phoenix.

Gov. Jan Brewer’s much-criticized gaffe during Arizona’s first and perhaps only gubernatorial debate may have been embarrassing but it may not necessarily affect her lead over her main opponent.

A stumbling Governor Brewer appeared to have lost her train of thought as Wednesday night’s debate got underway and she attempted to spell out her accomplishments as governor, a job she inherited in January 2009 when she was secretary of state. But Brewer went into the debate as a strong favorite, largely due to her support for Arizona’s strict and popular immigration law.

“It would be unusual even for that strong of an incident to make a 20-point difference,” says William Dixon, a political scientist at the University of Arizona, alluding to recent polls that show Brewer leading over Democratic challenger Terry Goddard.

“Typically, debates don’t have a great impact,” adds Jim Haynes, president of the Behavior Research Center in Phoenix. “In this case, because of this kind of extraordinary attention that it’s continued to draw, it may.”

Brewer was obliged to participate in the debate because she is using public dollars to fund her campaign, and publicly funded candidates must participate in at least one debate. But she has said she won’t be debating again before the November election.

If her campaign changes that position, it may be an indicator that the governor is losing ground and needs to do something to change momentum, Mr. Haynes says.

But in Arizona, which leans conservative, Brewer could be safe simply by virtue of being the Republican candidate. “The question is not just is somebody impressed or unimpressed with her performance, but are they also willing to vote for the other guy?” says Haynes.
Indeed, the reaction among Arizonans appeared to follow party lines.

Republican voter Sarah Abraham is standing by the governor. She chalks up Brewer's troubles to stress. “Stress is a funny thing,” she says. “The critics are not in her shoes. She totally has my support.”

But Democratic voter Candice Garcia, on the other hand, was embarrassed. “Even though she’s the governor by default, she still represents Arizona," she says. "Her performance was a joke."

Mr. Dixon, the political scientist, says Brewer is certainly not the first politician who has made mistakes during campaign debates.

Gerald Ford at one point said Poland was a free country before the fall of communism,” he says. “In this case, though it’s not saying something wrong so much as just getting completely flustered.… It’s hard to explain.”

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