|It was more of a brawl than a debate.
Candidates barely had time to discuss ideas, between the name-calling, insults and twisting of truths that took place in the two-hour debate between Puerto Rico's gubernatorial contenders: former Gov. Pedro Rosselló of the New Progressive Party, Aníbal Acevedo Vilá of the Popular Democratic Party, and Rubén Berríos, of the Puerto Rican Independence Party.
While Rosselló was asked repeatedly about the corruption cases involving past party and administration officials, Acevedo Vilá was hammered away at on the failings of the Calderón administration and Berríos continued to insist the island would never progress with the NPP or the PDP at the helm of government.
There's no doubt, Berríos had some of the evening's best lines. My personal favorite: "Puerto Ricans don't have to choose between corruption and incompetence."
Berríos is a gifted orator, who has become the perennial "third man" at island gubernatorial debates. But his debate performance won't translate into more votes for the PIP, despite his public speaking skills. As Senate Minority Leader Kenneth McClintock told journalists before the debate: "If winning the debate meant winning elections, we'd be entering the fifth term in the administration of Gov. Rubén Berríos."
Between the two main contenders, it was a better night for Acevedo Vilá than for Rosselló, who appeared to lose his cool during the grilling on corruption he got from local journalists and his debate opponents. Acevedo Vilá had an awful start, caught in a loss for words after Berríos appeared to steal his thunder with his opening remarks. But his comfort level grew during the debate. He was actually able to articulate some campaign platform ideas, and by the night's end, he was able to call Rosselló on the lack of ideas he was able to put forth during the evening. "Look at the difference between Pedro Rosselló of 1992, 1996 and the Pedro Rosselló today. Where are his ideas?"
Rosselló started the evening on a sound footing, saying he would offer solutions to the problems affecting everyday Puerto Ricans. And he did confront the corruption issue solidly when he said he had learned from the past and would ensure that corruption would not take place again in his administration. "I assume the responsibility for those cases that occurred for which I feel very hurt. I assume the responsibility, saying how we are going to ensure that there won't be corruption in the future in the government or in any sector."
Rosselló, however, also used up precious time responding to the attacks launched by his adversaries with counterattacks of his own, rather than detailing the many ideas contained in his voluminous campaign platform. It's not clear how important this debate was, or the one that will take place next month will be, in determining who ultimately wins the elections. Some observers, mostly PDP observers, have said the debates are key for that all important undecided voter, but other observers, largely from the NPP, expressed doubt there are many undecided voters left on the island. Rosselló, himself, downplayed the importance of the debate before it took place, likening it to a "glorified news conference."
The debate was an important event in the long campaign season, and there will be another next month. Berríos will be bright as ever, and Acevedo Vilá will probably have another strong outing. By then, Rosselló, I bet, will have figured out how to more effectively brush off corruption questions, and stay on message by discussing his plans rather than criticizing his main opponent's lack of achievement.
Acevedo Vilá did himself some good during the debate. As one colleague put it: "you thought more of him at the end of the night than you did when it started." It did give his campaign some needed traction, but whether it was enough to overcome Rosselló's lead in the race which polls put as wide as 9 percentage points is another story.
In the end, however, the debate reflected badly on all the candidates, as it was an extension of the negative campaigns they have been running this year. In fact, news of the debate quickly morphed into a series of press conferences in which Acevedo Vilá henchmen and Rosselló henchmen detailed the alleged lies told by their principle opponents during the debate. Things have gotten so bad, that one newspaper termed this campaign "the most vapid, emptily vicious and least constructive" in the 52-year history of the commonwealth.
Given the current situation, candidates should probably be more interested in sparking some fire in party loyalists to ensure they get to the polls, rather than reaching out to the dwindling number of independent voters, who given the choices just might stay home on election day.
John Marino, Managing Editor of The San Juan Star, writes the weekly Puerto Rico Report column for the Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached directly at: Marino@coqui.net