In her last real opportunity to demonstrate a bold leadership vision in a prominent forum, Lt. Gov. Lucy Baxley instead came across as overly scripted, awkward, and angry at the man across the stage. Meanwhile, Gov. Bob Riley turned in a measured but impressively consistent effort, winning the day in particular on campaign finance reform, economic development, and General Fund budgeting. Riley also managed to project an air of calm confidence that gave him a clear victory in style points.
Baxley's one real score came on illegal immigration, where she suggested it would be better to use state troopers to enforce state traffic laws than federal immigration laws, and she also did well on the constitutional reform question. But that wasn't enough to overcome the other flaws in Baxley's performance, which included criticism of the same Riley tax plan for which she voted in 2003, frequent mentions of no-bid contracts even when the question seemed completely unrelated to that subject, and a bizarre exchange that culminated in Baxley's complaint that Riley never invited her to tag along on economic development trips.
Riley won the debate. It wasn't close. The election won't be, either.
The lieutenant governor's debate was as forgettable as the office the two contenders seek. Democratic former Gov. Jim Folsom, Jr., and Republican lobbyist Luther Strange both seemed competent and well prepared, and neither strayed far from the talking points. Much of what the two discussed during their responses, though, was aspirational -- and necessarily so, given the lite gov's rather limited powers since the office was stripped for parts in 1999.
It's hard to pick a winner when the debate centers on what a candidate would like to do if only the office he wants had the power to do anything that isn't ceremonial. Strange was more eloquent, but Folsom had a more folksy accent. Call it a draw.
Things livened up considerably during the attorney general's debate. There's no love lost between AG Troy King and Mobile County District Attorney John Tyson, Jr., and they put on the kind of show you would have expected from the two.
Tyson largely dominated the debate, establishing himself as the candidate with more experience running a large prosecutor's office and effectively pushing his ideas to fight crime through both prosecution and prevention. Tyson also landed a haymaker by asking why King criticized Tyson's early intervention initiative as just another social program while also touting the AG office's Mentor Alabama, which is, well, just another social program.
Still, King pulled a few positives from the night. Tyson came off as angry toward the end, and his mention of the criminal record of a murder victim's daughter was in very poor taste, even if King's choice to feature the woman in a campaign ad was, too. King also did a good job of promoting his efforts to lobby legislators to pass laws to protect children from abuse, and he gave a good answer to the last question about civil suits against the state.
But the most telling moment of the debate came when King attacked Tyson for striking plea bargains in thousands of cases as the Mobile County DA. What you didn't hear explicitly is that more than 95 percent of all criminal cases in America end with a plea bargain, dismissal, etc., regardless of the partisan stripes of the prosecutor or judge. If you think the system takes a long time now -- and it does -- imagine how much more slowly the wheels of justice would turn if the number of trials increased twofold or threefold or more. It would take years to get anything to trial, and that would be grossly unfair to crime victims and their families.
As Tyson noted, plea bargains often are tools to induce testimony against major criminals; they also can obtain convictions in cases where reluctant witnesses or evidentiary problems otherwise would doom the prosecution at trial. Their respective views on plea bargaining should tell you all you need to know about the AG nominees. Tyson didn't score a knockout Monday night, but he claimed a solid victory.