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Politicians vie to trip up opponents

You think reporters ask politicians obnoxious questions? Members of the press are as earnest as Eagle Scouts compared with the way politicians question each other.
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You think reporters ask politicians obnoxious questions? Members of the press are as earnest as Eagle Scouts compared with the way politicians question each other.

Given the chance to ask one question of their opponents during campaign debates the past few weeks, candidates have tended toward the trivial, the petty and the petulant. Their queries seem to come straight out of the Gotcha Grab Bag.

"Pat, how many school districts are there in Bucks County and what are their names?" House incumbent Michael G. Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) asked his Democratic opponent, Patrick Murphy, in a debate last week. Murphy failed the all-politics-is- really -local quiz.

Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) played "Jeopardy!" with Democratic challenger Bob Casey Jr. in one of their encounters last month. Santorum first asked Casey to name Iran's former president, who recently visited the United States. Casey couldn't come up with the correct response: Mohammad Khatami. Nor could Casey come up with an answer to this Santorum stumper: What percentage of the state's public-school employee pension funds are invested in companies that had made a list of the nation's top job exporters? (Santorum said the answer was 25 percent.)

In a Virginia Senate debate, Democratic candidate Jim Webb asked his Republican rival, Sen. George Allen, about the "situation in the Senkaku Islands." Surely, Webb suggested, Allen knew about the situation, which Webb asserted "could blow up into an international incident."

Um, well, no. Allen harrumphed, saying he would "have to study the issue more fully," as Webb went on to explain that the oil-rich Senkakus, which are northeast of Taiwan, are claimed by China and Japan.

Point (sort of) scored. Or maybe payback delivered. The Senkaku question had the distinct aroma of a question Allen asked of Webb in an earlier debate: Could Webb give the location of Craney Island? When Webb could not, Allen happily noted that Craney -- a man-made dirt mound that is the proposed site of a cargo terminal -- sits between the James and Elizabeth rivers in Hampton Roads.

'I'm not going to answer'
Question Time sessions like these rarely elicit a correct response from an opponent -- that's kind of the idea -- but they sometimes draw interesting nonresponses.

There was, for example, this challenge thrown down by Maryland Republican senatorial candidate Michael Steele to his Democratic opponent Ben Cardin in a debate last week: Name the two endpoints of Metro's proposed Purple Line.

For those playing along at home, the correct response is Bethesda and New Carrollton. But Cardin clearly didn't know. He stammered "Chevy Chase." Then he paused and snapped, "I'm not going to answer your question."

But just when Steele was getting ready for his victory lap, he stumbled, too. The next day he held a press conference at the Grosvenor-Strathmore Metro station in North Bethesda to highlight Cardin's apparent dimness on the issue. Except that the Grosvenor station is no longer part of the Purple Line's proposed route; the site currently under consideration is two Metro stops, and four miles, south. Steele seemed surprised when he learned this from reporters. Pressed on why he held his media event at the wrong station, it was his turn to snap: "This is where they told me to come," he said.

This episode would seem to invoke a basic rule, germane to debating politicians as well as to lawyers questioning trial witnesses: Don't ask the question if you don't already know the answer.

Rep. Mike Sodrel (R-Ind.), who is in a tough reelection fight with former representative Baron Hill (D) in Indiana's 9th District, seemed to forget this in a debate last week. At one point, Sodrel turned to Hill and asked, "Why do you think it's relevant to this race to be calling me 'Millionaire Mike?' "

"Well, you are a millionaire, Mike, and that's just the fact," Hill said to Sodrel, who owns a successful trucking business. "People have an opportunity to know you're a millionaire."

Hill added: "Obviously, you're sensitive about it."

Sodrel, at a loss for a comeback, simply laughed.

Goal: A flustered response
House candidates Joseph Sestak and incumbent Curt Weldon (R-Pa.) did their own humble-background thing in a debate over a House seat last month. Sestak, a Democrat, told how he'd gone to local Catholic elementary and high schools before entering the Naval Academy during the Vietnam War. He eventually became a vice admiral. "Unlike others, I decided I did want to serve my country," Sestak said, taking a shot at Weldon, who got a teaching deferment and didn't serve in the war.

A peeved Weldon countered that he had served as a volunteer fireman, and described the time he battled a dangerous refinery fire. At which point he couldn't resist asking his own question: "Have you ever faced a similar situation, Joe, or are you always in the admiral's quarters, drinking out of your wine goblets and being waited on by your sailor servants?"

Gotcha questions are designed -- often by a candidate's consultants -- to throw an opponent off his game, and to create doubts about the opponent's background or command of the issues, says Steve Smith, a political science professor at Washington University in St. Louis. The idea is to elicit a flustered or angry response, "something that will end up being repeated in the newspaper and on the evening news the next day," he says.

But Smith notes that it's hard for a candidate to come up with a truly revealing zinger. Candidate-on-candidate question sessions tend to come up at the end of the debate, which means that most of the major issues have already been discussed. What's more, voters are pretty wise to the gotcha game.

As a result, he says, "it just looks obnoxious. For a question to be really effective, it has to be about something that the public wants to know about, and believes the other guy should know about. Ideally, it should be a question that a significant part of the public knows the answer to. If not, you just make your audience feel stupid, and you look snotty."

Even innocuous questions can backfire. During a debate among candidates for a House seat in New Orleans, Democrat Karen Carter asked Republican Joseph Lavigne how his family was faring 14 months after Hurricane Katrina.

Lavigne responded with a perplexed look. Then tears began to well up in his eyes. "I don't know why you asked that question," he said, and then explained that his mother had died while the family was evacuated. "I'm back in my home, [but] I buried my mother," he said.

After the debate's moderator asked Carter why she chose the question, she responded that she hadn't heard about Lavigne's mother. "I was asking it out of sincerity," she said, adding she meant no harm.

'Every day is just a hoot'
In the Iowa governor's race, one candidate's softball question was deemed unworthy by the other candidate.

"I'm not going to take this time to make a personal attack," Democrat Chet Culver said in one of his debates with Republican Jim Nussle, the incumbent. "Tell the voters something they might not know about you. Congressman?"

Nussle's non-answer: "I think you could probably think of a more profound question than that."

Arnold Schwarzenegger probably could have, too. In a debate that some observers criticized because the candidates spent only two minutes discussing education issues, the California governor, a Republican running for reelection, actually posed this question to his Democratic rival, Phil Angelides:

"What is the funniest moment during your campaign?"

Angelides replied, "Every day is just a hoot."

He apparently was serious.