2010 Senate races: Four key debates this week could be game-changers

Many voters don't tune into the campaigns until debate season, which this week includes clashes in four 2010 Senate races: Connecticut, Florida, Wisconsin, and Illinois.

Jessica Hill/AP
On Monday night, the Connecticut Senate debate between state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal (D) and former TV wrestling CEO Linda McMahon (R) promises to be hot.

It’s debate season, and for Senate and gubernatorial candidates, these televised duels can make or break election prospects heading into the Nov. 2 vote.

Take California. On Saturday, Republican nominee for governor Meg Whitman faced tough questions about her former housekeeper, an undocumented worker from Mexico, handing Democratic nominee Jerry Brown an opening. The issue could have particular impact on the crucial Latino vote.

Also last weekend, Kentucky’s Senate candidates, Republican Rand Paul and Democrat Jack Conway, sparred on Fox News Sunday. The debate may not have had the sharp focus of the California debate, but it still could have swayed votes. Mr. Paul, a first-time candidate with "tea party" backing and strong libertarian leanings, portrayed himself as a loyal Republican. Mr. Conway, Kentucky’s attorney general, tried to distance himself from President Obama.

On Monday night, the Connecticut cage match, er, Senate contest between state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal (D) and former TV wrestling CEO Linda McMahon (R) also promises to be hot. Ms. McMahon released a new ad Monday attacking Mr. Blumenthal’s misrepresentations of his military record. McMahon, for her part, is sure to face questions about the seamy world of simulated TV wrestling.

With less than a month to go before Election Day, debates can be game-changers – particularly in tight races, which all three of those are. Some voters don’t really pay attention to the campaign until the debates, and a gaffe can be devastating. Elements less decisive than a gaffe – perceptions about level of knowledge and energy or even a stray glance by a candidate at his watch – can always sway votes.

Debates also represent opportunities for candidates who have stumbled out of the gate after winning their primary. Paul of Kentucky surged on the back of tea party energy to win his party’s nomination in May, then proceeded to put his foot in his mouth on national television when he questioned the necessity of civil rights laws. On Sunday, Paul seemed more polished and prepared, putting Republicans at ease over his candidacy – especially when he said he would back Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky for the top GOP slot in the Senate.

The California debate, in contrast, only seemed to make Whitman’s immigration problem worse. Whitman has said she had been shown documents indicating her housekeeper was legally in the country, and then fired her when she learned of her actual status. The housekeeper, Nicandra Díaz Santillán, maintains that Whitman and her husband knew early on that she was undocumented.

In the debate, Whitman blamed Brown for whipping up the housekeeping controversy, to which Brown replied: “Don’t run for governor if you can’t stand up on your own two feet and say, ‘Hey, I made a mistake.’ “

The week ahead features other debates: On Wednesday, ABC’s George Stephanopoulos will moderate a debate in Tampa among Florida’s three Senate candidates, Republican Marco Rubio, Democrat Kendrick Meek, and independent Charlie Crist. Mr. Rubio, former speaker of the state House, has a comfortable lead, but there are no sure things in politics. Governor Crist, who quit the Republican Party when it became clear he would lose the GOP primary, is struggling in second place, ahead of Congressman Meek.

On Friday, Sen. Russ Feingold (D) of Wisconsin faces off against his Republican challenger, Ron Johnson, who is currently ahead in the polls. In the Republican quest to take over the Senate – still a long shot – picking up the Wisconsin seat is a critical piece of the puzzle.

On Sunday, NBC's “Meet the Press” hosts the first of its 2010 debates, with Illinois state treasurer Alexi Giannoulias going up against Rep. Mark Kirk (R) of Illinois in the race to fill President Obama's former Senate seat. Both men have had challenges, and the debate could break open a tight race. Mr. Giannoulias has faced questions over his family bank, which went bankrupt. Congressman Kirk has been dogged by inaccuracies in his resume.

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