GOP Iowa U.S. Senate hopefuls square off in campaign's first debate

Event will be held Wednesday at Drake University in Des Moines

More than eight months before they square off at the ballot box, six Republicans seeking the party’s 2014 U.S. Senate nomination will meet in their first debate.

“My general feeling is that it’s still a bit early to have a debate,” says University of Iowa Associate Professor of Political Science Tim Hagle, who plans to attend Wednesday’s event at Drake University in Des Moines.

Sponsored by American for Prosperity and National Review, the 7 p.m. debate in Sheslow Auditorium will feature six announced candidates for the GOP nomination: Sam Clovis, Joni Ernst, Paul Lunde, Scott Schaben, Matt Whitaker and David Young.

The candidates have appeared together at a variety of county-level party functions where they have spoken warmly of each other and often agreed in their answers.

In the end, however, campaigns ultimately are about contrasts, said Whitaker, a Des Moines attorney and business owner.

“Whether it’s a contrast about policy or personality or style, ultimately voters are going to have to choose who they support,” he said. “Certainly forums and debates are going to provide that opportunity.”

Ernst, a state senator from Red Oak, said voters will be looking for another contrast.

“Many of us agree,” she said, but the campaign – including Wednesday’s debate – is about “finding that sharp contrast of the Republican nominees. Who is going to paint that contrast to Congressman Bruce Braley? Who is going to beat Bruce Braley?”

Their performance is unlikely to lock up votes, Hagle said, because at this stage “the candidates are still mainly trying to increase their name recognition by connecting to as many voters as possible.”

While they may not seal the deal Wednesday, Chis Larimer, who teaches political science at the University of Northern Iowa, the debate gives them the opportunity to create “a narrative that is powerful and will stick throughout the rest of the primary campaign.”

“What’s at stake is distinguishing one’s self among a very small group of very active and informed voters,” he said. “Personal narratives are very powerful when it comes to predicting vote preferences. The debate is an opportunity to carefully craft that narrative in a very public setting to create momentum.”

Equally important at this stage of the campaign is avoiding self-inflicted injury, added Dianne Bystrom of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University. “The candidates need to avoid any ‘oops’ moments as well as convey their positions in memorable and quote-worthy statements.”

At this point, Hagle said, candidates haven’t “honed their message as much as they might like.”

“The danger, even for those who are more comfortable ad-libbing, is to not say something that could come back to haunt them” in the general election if they are the party’s nominee, he said.

The candidates, who have not put up impressive fundraising numbers, also will be auditioning for financial support. Potential donors may be looking for someone to break out of the pack.

It’s a bit circular, he said, because it’s harder to break out of the pack without money, “That’s why events such as this could be seen as an opportunity to show why (a candidate) should be the nominee.”

Typically, Bystrom said, the candidates would launch their best attacks against Braley and Democrats rather than go after each other.

Although the “botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act will be easy fodder for criticism” in front of a friendly audience, she said, “such jabs -- when quoted by the media -- may not play as well with independent voters especially after the recent partisan bickering in Congress and government shutdown.”

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