Lieutenant governor debate a showdown between two big personalities

By David Saleh Rauf and Brian M. Rosenthalm, Houston Chronicle

State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte will take the offensive tonight, callling out State Sen. Dan Patrick for previously supporting cuts to public education funding.
State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte will take the offensive tonight, callling out State Sen. Dan Patrick for previously supporting cuts to public education funding.

Democrat Leticia Van de Putte asked for five debates across the state against Dan Patrick, her Republican opponent in the lieutenant governor’s race. She ended up getting one.

On Monday, Van de Putte will have her first and only shot at sharing a stage with Patrick in a one-hour debate at 7 p.m. sponsored by Austin’s KLRU-TV and the Texas Tribune.

A little more than a month before Election Day, the one-hour event will pit a Democratic underdog desperately needing a jolt in the polls against a GOP front-runner who won a four-way primary, in part through fiercely conservative rhetoric and impressive debate performances.

It also will showcase the notable characteristics that have brought both state senators to where they are: Van de Putte as a tempered but strong populist voice and Patrick as a swaggering talk radio host known for his quick mind and sharp tongue.

“It could get really interesting. These are two very big personalities,” said Harold Cook, a Democratic strategist. “Van de Putte has the skills to come very aggressively, but Patrick is not going to easily be shaken off his message.”

That, in a nutshell, is the basic debate dynamic most are expecting: Van de Putte forcefully gunning for Patrick on everything from his stance on immigration to his 2011 vote backing a state budget that cut billions in public school funding and Patrick deflecting verbal bullets much the way he did when three GOP primary challengers constantly aimed for his head.

If there was any doubt about how eager Van de Putte is to mix it up with her rival, just take this example: the San Antonio senator snatched a front-row seat at a political symposium last week to watch Patrick give an interview before a ballroom filled with lobbyists, political junkies and students.

“This may be the most anticipated moment my campaign has faced, and I couldn’t be more eager to take the stage,” Van de Putte wrote about the upcoming debate in a message to supporters Friday. “There is A LOT on my mind. Since Dan only agreed to one out of the five debates I proposed, I’m going to use this opportunity to not let him go unchallenged.”

‘He will not play it safe’

Lt. Governor candidate Leticia Van De Putte meets with the Houston Chronicle Editorial Board Friday, Sept. 26, 2014, in Houston. ( James Nielsen / Houston Chronicle )

Those who know Patrick say they do not expect him to dial it down on television in the face of an aggressive challenger.

“He will be Dan Patrick. He will not play it safe,” said Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack, a longtime friend of Patrick. “I mean, Dan Patrick is not the kind of person who’s just going to sit back and be mellow when he’s got a very strong opinion.”

For his part, Patrick has run a low-key campaign since defeating incumbent Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in a May runoff, appearing almost exclusively at tea party functions and in front of industry groups. His campaign also shrugged off the idea of debating Van de Putte five times.

Patrick spokesman Alejandro Garcia said the Houston senator is prepared and looking forward to the debate. He declined to discuss debate preparation but said Patrick’s camp is not using a stand-in to replicate Van de Putte.

Likewise, Van de Putte spokesman Manny Garcia declined to comment on debate strategy but said the event will provide voters with a “stark contrast between these two candidates.”

Patrick, however, comes into Monday’s showdown with a marked advantage: He not only wields a microphone for a living but has vastly more debate experience.

Patrick participated in more than two dozen debate-style events during a grueling primary – and for good measure he brazenly debated former San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro on immigration policy just a month before winning the GOP lieutenant governor nomination.

Van de Putte, on the other hand, comes equipped with more than two decades of experience in the Legislature but has never participated in such a wide-ranging policy debate on live television.

Brian Lain, director of debate at the University of North Texas, said he expects it to be a “battle between skilled debaters” but one candidate comes into the debate with a clear upper hand.

Little time left

Van de Putte “could do a great job. She could be on the offensive. She could do a number of scores.” James Aldrete, a Democratic consultant working with Van de Putte campaign, said there’s “nothing about this debate that’s a Hail Mary or looking for a knockout blow.”

The reality of the race would indicate that Van de Putte has little time left to make a positive impression, or to paint Patrick negatively, in front of a large swath of voters.

Patrick is up by double digits, according to the last public poll released for the race and does not have to do much come Monday, aside from avoid any major mistakes that could be used against him in the form of sound bites in the final days of the race.

Patrick has proved capable of doing just that.

“He is a great showman, and those who are attempting to smoke out the real Dan Patrick are going to be disappointed because the real Dan Patrick is the showman,” Cook said. “I’ve never seen anybody successfully shake him off his game. I don’t look at someone like Dan Patrick to make major gaffes.”

He added, “What Sen. Van de Putte needs to do is get aggressive and try to make him own the things he’s said before. That may be the best deal Van de Putte can get.”

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