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Candidate hopefuls stayed on script

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It’s a good thing the first debate of Indiana’s 2012 gubernatorial campaign wasn’t billed as a drinking game.

If it had been, the audience likely would have been hammered by the 25-minute mark.

I started out trying to keep track of how many times Republican Mike Pence mentioned his Roadmap for Indiana, Democrat John Gregg uttered the word “bipartisan” and Libertarian Rupert Boneham said the word “empower.” But after the tally reached triple digits and my third pen ran out of ink, I quit counting.

That’s one of the downsides of having three media-savvy candidates — two former radio talk-show hosts and a reality TV star — in the race. If nothing else, these guys know how to stay on message.

That much was clear in their Wednesday night encounter in Zionsville, the first of three debates scheduled for different parts of the state.

For most of the night, there were few surprises and, until relatively late in the debate, even fewer fireworks.

Pence did his best avuncular Ronald Reagan imitation, right down to the aw-shucks head tilt. Gregg did his best avuncular Wilford Brimley imitation and looked for much of the evening as if he were trying to make a meal of his mustache.

And Rupert, well, he’s an original, a wild-eyed, straggly-haired guy who scatters stray statements of surprising depth and insight among stacks upon stacks of almost nonsensical sentence fragments.

Pence came into the debate the frontrunner, and he left it that way.

It was clear from the opening moments that Gregg was eager to go on the attack and paint Pence as a mean-spirited extremist ideologue.

Pence, though, demonstrated that he’s an elusive target. He didn’t give Gregg any openings and even turned the Democrat’s calls for bipartisanship back on him. At least twice, Pence said that he agreed on some issues with each of his opponents.

Instead of giving the audience the snarl Gregg wanted him to show, Pence purred.

At last, in the final segment of a supposed Lincoln-Douglas-style section of the debate that neither Abraham Lincoln nor Stephen Douglas would have recognized, Gregg could wait no longer. In response to a question Pence posed about how the candidates would guarantee balanced budgets for the coming years, Gregg lurched forward with an attack.

Gregg threw one haymaker after another, assaulting Pence for not showing up for work in Congress, for not passing any legislation while he was in the U.S. House of Representatives and for being a divisively partisan attack dog with an unhealthy focus on social issues.

It wasn’t effective. Pence had set a trap, and Gregg walked right into it.

After thanking Boneham for actually answering the question, Pence counter-punched with devastating effect.

Calling Gregg by his first name and recalling that they had been friends for many years, Pence said: “You’re not sounding like yourself these days.”

Pence then defended his record and landed his own shot. He said, in five of the six years that Gregg had been speaker of the Indiana House of Representatives, the state hadn’t passed a balanced budget.

Other than Gregg’s late and clumsy defense of his own record of balancing budgets, that pretty much ended the skirmishing.

In the rest of the debate, the candidates stuck to script.

Pence touted a Chamber of Commerce-approved plan for more vocational education. Gregg whispered endearments to the teachers unions by saying that teachers had been shut out of the education reform process. Boneham hit the Libertarian sweet spot by attacking the centralization of government.

Gregg and Boneham said they opposed the state’s new right-to-work law. Pence supported it.

Both Gregg and Boneham endorsed a hybrid approach to Indiana’s participation in the new health care reform law.

 In perhaps his one less-than- completely disciplined moment of the night, Pence delivered a full-throated and anguished cry of opposition to the law.

Curiously, on a night when Gregg again and again invoked Pence’s fascination with social issues, none of the candidates focused much attention on Pence’s call for a family impact statement on all new Indiana laws, a new and sweeping extension of government power.

Perhaps that will come at the next debate.

If that encounter is like the one Wednesday night, it might not be a great evening for political discourse.

But it could be a great night for bartenders.

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