Littwin: The Gardner and the woodshed | SummitDaily.com

Littwin: The Gardner and the woodshed

A funny thing happened at the latest U.S. Senate debate. Cory Gardner got lectured. He got scolded. He got taken to the proverbial (whatever that actually means) woodshed.

And here's the funny/strange part: It wasn't Mark Udall who took him there. It was Denver Post politics editor and co-moderator Chuck Plunkett.

You see a lot of strange things happen at debates. That's why you have to watch, particularly these days when access to candidates is so limited. It's all non-stop, non-informative 30-second TV ads and last-minute-announced campaign stops and private events designed to keep the opposition trackers away.

And even though the participants try to stick to scripted answers at debates, these things are live, and the candidates get caught off guard. One day it's John Hickenlooper at the Chamber debate saying pot voters were "reckless" and the next, in a yes/no lightning round, Mark Udall is saying "no" when asked if he would change anything about TABOR. All you can do is shake your head.

But the real news came early in the Denver Post debate when Plunkett asked Gardner why he wouldn't reveal the details about the differences between his famously canceled health care plan and his new one under Obamacare. Of course, Gardner dodged the question and started talking about Udall and Obamacare and broken promises instead.

Plunkett listened to the non-answer, then asked: "Would you like to answer the specific question?" Of course he wouldn't. Gardner gave another non-answer. And then came the Plunkett headliner:

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"Sometimes," he said, "if a candidate doesn't answer a question, that tells you something about the candidate."

Yes, it does.

Plunkett didn't call out Gardner by name. He didn't have to. All candidates try to dodge the hard questions. Udall dodged when asked how he'd rate Barack Obama's job. Neither Gardner nor Udall answered the question about "boots on the ground" in Syria. Udall wouldn't say why he was absent from committee hearings. Gardner wouldn't answer yes or no on climate change. Udall had to hedge on Keystone.

Everyone knows that's part of the game, like doing 39 in a 35. You don't expect to get a ticket. But Gardner has now been pulled over by Eli Stokols, the leading political TV reporter in town, and by Plunkett, who edits the political coverage for the Post. Gardner has a problem, and it's starting to show.

Last week, Gardner sat down for 30 minutes on KDVR's Sunday morning talk show and wouldn't answer Stokols' questions on personhood or his Obamacare cancellation. Stokols went at him repeatedly. It wasn't a revelation that Gardner would dodge. What was surprising was that Stokols wouldn't let go. Usually even the best reporters give up and move on when they're being filibustered.

Gardner has a few key questions for which he has no good answers. And both are of his own making. Everyone knows about his personhood problem — and how when he made his surprise entry into the Senate race, he disavowed his previous (and very public) support for the very unpopular proposed Colorado personhood amendments. But for some reason, he remained a co-sponsor of a House bill — the Life Begins at Conception Act — that is known by everyone, except Gardner, as federal personhood. In his interview with Stokols, he said four times that there was no such thing as federal personhood — an answer that, let's say, didn't work. In fact, it was a disaster.

At the Denver Post debate, Gardner tried a new non-answer — that the bill was simply a "statement that I support life," as if it were less a bill and more a pillow-style sampler.

The other question, of course, is the insurance cancellation letter, which Gardner used to keep in his jacket pocket, where it was handy if he needed to wave it in someone's face. But the longer he doesn't give details, the more it becomes like his personal long-form birth certificate.

The problem on personhood for Gardner is that most of the campaign is Udall railing about Gardner and personhood and abortion and birth control versus Gardner saying that Udall voted with Obama 99 percent of the time. The 99 percent is a good number for Gardner, and it fits neatly with the accompanying anti-Obamacare message, which would be stronger if Gardner would release that cancellation letter.

In the debate, there was a candidate-to-candidate question period. Gardner asked Udall about missed committee hearings and the fact that women in his Senate office aren't paid as well as the men. Udall dodged the first and had a good answer — about real paycheck inequality — to the second. Udall asked Gardner what would happen if the Life Begins at Conception bill became law. Gardner didn't answer the, uh, specific question. Udall then asked how Gardner would vote if he were in the Senate and the bill came up. Same thing.

On Thursday, Udall and Gardner meet again, for the third debate in four days. This one is in Pueblo, where the crowd will be encouraged to participate. If it's like the recent Hickenlooper-Beauprez debate there, it will be raucous. And if questions are dodged, the crowd will respond with loud jeering. Just so everyone knows.

Mike Littwin writes for the Colorado Independent.