by Alan Lange

The debate season is officially underway. About 200 people were in Murrah’s auditorium last night for the live televised debate.

Harvey Johnson’s campaign came loaded with hundreds of signs lining Woodrow Wilson and dozens of very vocal and organized supporters including city CAO Otha Burton and Police Chief Robert Moore. Melton had adequate coverage in terms of both signs and supporters, but it is clear that Melton’s campaign organization did not place the priority on the visuals of the debate that the Johnson team did.

Overall, most of the media reports concur with my own observations. Both candidates got about as much as they gave in terms of zingers and one liners. Both candidates “stepped in it” a couple of times and both shined a couple of times. My personal observation was that Johnson really needed to cut Melton down to size and he did not do that.

The format of the debate was, in my opinion, poor. A minute response time is not near enough time to do anything but lob witty soundbites, which is exactly what both candidates did for the most part. Though there were some attempts at more substantive discussion, the debate will far and away be remembered for the quick quips and not the depth of answers from either side.

In the post debate spin outside Murrah, supporters on both sides lined up for the cameras and chased anyone with a notebook, camera or recorder to tell them what they thought. Eavesdropping on conversations of supporters of both campaigns yielded the distinct impression that both sides considered it a draw if not a slight win for their candidate. But there was not a sense on the site that there was a blowout by either side. Online polls at WLBT and WJTV, though unscientific showed Melton as the clear winner in the popular opinion by Monday morning. Again, that is very unscientific, though their results were alarmingly similar in that both polls showed about a 4:1 margin for Melton.

There were some incredible sound clips from the debate including:

Melanie Christopher’s question on South Jackson
Eric Stringfellow’s question about Johnson’s ads and his response
Stringfellow’s follow up question on Johnson’s ads
Melton’s response on education and gangs
Harvey’s closing remarks

Johnson Attacks/Digs on Melton
Melton’s voting record or lack thereof(several times)
Not a real Democrat
Where he lived (gated community)
Residency
Wife not living here
Putting convention center in Rankin county
Melton’s church-going habits
Can’t find inner city neighborhoods on a map
Union Busting at WLBT
Criticizing citizens for the last 20 years
Cheap talk/slick talk

Melton Attacks/Digs on Johnson
Been on someone else’s payroll for 30 years.
Too slow to make a decision
Inability to get along with the County and the Chamber of Commerce
Retort on the Convention Center in Rankin being an impossibility due to the law
The fact that the union (AFL-CIO) are supporting Melton, not Johnson

Melton zingers
“He (Johnson) is incorrect. I don’t live behind one gate. I live behind two gates”
“I can get done more in 45 seconds than he can get done in 8 years.”
“He (Johnson) has been an 8 year sound bite”
“The same people supporting my campaign are the same people . . . the exact same people who supported the Mayor for his last two campaigns”

Johnson zingers
“he lives with the ?we’s’ behind the gated community”
“cheap talk”
“that my friends is the real bottom line”

Melton gaffes
His reference to Thomas Catchings death in the vein of the radio communications issue did not go over well.

Johnson gaffes
Johnson point blank passed on talking about divisive “code words” in his ads twice in a very direct question and follow up from Eric Stringfellow. Instead he tried to flip the question (twice) to talk about how Melton was dividing the city.

Biggest missed opportunity for Johnson
Johnson got about as much as he gave. Most observers I spoke with thought he needed to really stand out in this debate and clearly “win” it. I don’t think that happened.

Biggest missed opportunity for Melton
Melton really had two.

He missed a golden opportunity to slam the door on Johnson and more vividly point out that the AFL-CIO endorsed him during their talk about the unions.

Johnson also talked a good bit about Fannie Lou Hamer and Medgar Evers preaching in churches. Melton could have very quickly ended that conversation by pointing out (with the cheap Lloyd Bentsen debate trick) that “Harvey Johnson is no Hamer or Evers”.