A preview of tonight's U.S. Senate debate


Debates don’t often matter much in campaigns dominated by television ads that have much greater influence. But as Dean Heller and Shelley Berkley engage in the first of their three confrontations tonight, I think they may have a large impact.


Because polls out this week indicate that the race is close enough that debates could turn the race one way or the other. Few voters are undecided in the contest – between five and eight percent. But they will determine the winner. These folks have not been swayed by Heller’s relentless assault on Berkley’s ethics or her attempts to parry them by talking about Medicare or Heller’s ethics.

What makes tonight so interesting is that both candidates seem on edge, especially Heller. He nearly exploded after a Berkley ad tied him to convicted felon Eddie Floyd, calling the congresswoman the most unethical and corrupt person he has ever met. Will he repeat that tonight? And Berkley has flailed at explaining the behavior that got her in trouble with the House Ethics Committee – her story has changed from TV appearance to TV appearance to TV appearance. What will she say tonight?

I think Heller is more likely to lose his temper because I get the sense that he and his team think they should have put Berkley away by now. How are you competitive with someone under a congressional ethics probe? That would make me mad, too.

But I also believe Berkley is more likely to commit a gaffe. She is less likely to stay on the Big Oil/end-Medicare-as-we-know-it script if Heller or one of the questioners goes after her. She is not nearly as disciplined a candidate as Heller usually is.

What people often forget about debates is that not nearly as many people watch them on TV as they glean information from the ensuing media coverage. So unless one of them says seniors should lose their Medicare, the momentum or lack thereof will come from what sound bites the TV stations choose and what the newspaper stories highlight.

What happens in Reno tonight will not stay in Reno. Two Vegas debates to come will matter, too, especially the last one. That one will be on "Face to Face."

(Speaking of the program, tune in tonight to see what Sun Political Editor Anjeanette Damon and UNR Professor Eric Herzik think about what to watch for tonight.)