Friday, September 21, 2007

About Last Night

OK, I've been thinking about it for pretty much 12 hours now. I prattled on endlessly last night at Mrs. Save Fitchburg even though she was wrapped up in "The Young and the Restless" and the fortunes of Jabot (oh yeah, I pay attention). I haven't stopped thinking about it today, and I think it might have even crept into my dreams last night.

Yeah, I've had last night's debate on my mind non-stop, and in all that time, I haven't wavered from my conviction. In fact, it's probably only gotten firmer: Lisa Wong dominated last night.

Gone was the nervous, wonky, hanging-in candidate from a week ago. She was forceful and articulate from the beginning. She had all the answers, and she had the answers to the answers (more on that in a minute).

Whether it was a once-in-a-lifetime fluke or the pieces finally clicking, this was the candidate Wong fans had been hoping for when she announced she was running for mayor. If you're a fan, you have to be on cloud nine today. If you're in one of the other camps, you have to admit, she won last night. It was that clear-cut.

She was in such a groove last night, that even the peripheral stuff worked. She packed the room with supporters, who cheered her ever answer. Not that she needed it, but it helped build her momentum. Where was everyone else's cheering section, by the way? It was noticeable.

She found the right note for everything, best illustrated by her asking a puff-ball question of Dionne: Why do you want to be mayor? At that point, the candidates had asked somewhere between eight and 10 questions of each other, all of them pointing to a weakness or challenging a position of strength. No one had bothered with Dionne, who was comfortable, funny and honest last night, in a performance at least won him some respect, if not votes.

So, Wong makes the effort to ask the guy a question, and then follows it up in her "rebuttal" by saying she hopes to have breakfast with him when this thing is all over. Perfect timing, perfect message, part of a great night.

She took some punches from Donnelly, and threw it back. Donnelly, again, came across as condecending and seemingly upset that two people who have lived in the city a total of 10 years combined are running for mayor against him. He also continued to rail that the City Council is not responsible for the city's financial woes. Even Ted DeSalvatore has admitted the council should have done better (at least in 2006).

Donnelly's snarky "if you understood the charter" act was demeaning, and didn't put him in the nicest light. However, it might be an effective play. You have to think that the Donnelly camp knows that preliminary voters are likely old-school residents. His "I'm the long-time guy" message is likely playing well with that core crowd. It might piss off two-thirds of the voters, but if one-third jump on it and vote for him, he'll be seeing you on Nov. 6.

Beyond Wong's transformation last night was the relative disappearance of DeSalvatore. He had a solid, if not spectacular performance last Thursday (he might have been the winner by a nose last week). Last night, he kind of disappeared. While the candidates were far less nervous last night, Ted seemed to hang on to some of his nerves, especially when reading his opening and closing statements (while we're here, pet peeve: Ted's insistance on using "and/or" on a regular basis. It's just a speaking tic of his that for some reason jumps out at me. Meaningless, but there you go).

Part of it might have been that he was kind of ignored during the candidate-on-candidate question period. That took a bulk of the debate, and it was where performance fates were made and lost.

In fact, in reviewing the 11 questions (Dionne took a pass on his last shot), five of the questions were directed to Wong. Interesting. Why was she the focus so often? Impressively, she handled that relative onslaught pretty well. Donnelly took three questions, DeSalvatore only two. One was on his work background (which was still rather devoid of absolute specifics), and another on "zero tolerance" crimefighting.

So, maybe it wasn't his fault. He just didn't get a lot of questions. But the end result is that he was kind of on the sidelines last night.

Wong, however, was firing on all cylanders. She took Donnelly's snippy shots, and turned them back around, particularly when calling for accountability, which she said has been missing in the city. After panelist Jeff McMenemy rattled off a list of her proposed programs and asked how she'd pay for them, she delivered this nugget: "From how you stated it, it sounds like I might be the only with a plan." Great, great answer.

So now, the candidates are done with the wholesale public campaigning. They'll spend the last few days at standouts, events and doorsteps, looking for a few last votes. Considering the unsettled nature of this race -- anyone ready yet to pick definitive winners? -- the question now is, was Wong too late? A performance like this could make up a good chunk of minds. We'll find out if it worked Tuesday night.

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