Last night the four remaining presidential candidates held the first debate of the 2009 campaign.
The debate made clear one of the peculiarities of this campaign. All the candidates are fairly well known to voters. Piñera has been around the block several times, Frei has been either president or senator for fifteen years, Arrate has been minister of all sorts of things, and Enríquez-Ominami has had almost as much media exposure as Michael Jackson and Princess Di combined.
More than getting to know the candidates, then the debate was going to be about policy (yeah, right), or waiting for some sort of fireworks between the candidates. There was very little policy, and almsot not fireworks, except for a brief flare up when Frei questioned Piñera's business ethics, citing a Transparency International report that criticizes some of Piñera's recent activities. Piñera hit back with a sophisticated 'So's yo momma'.
With little movement, then, who won? Normally a boring debate with no knock-out blows would favour the front-runner, which in this case would be Piñera.
Yet I cannot help but think that Piñera is a terrible candidate. His gestures look odd on television, and as the evening wore on he looked increasingly dishelved. What he lacked in sartorial organization, though, he made up for in communicational organization. The guy knows how to stay on message. In fact, he stuck to pretty much the same talking points he has been delivering for about ten years.
Frei on the other hand was the most presidential in appearance, but has an odd and slightly incoherent communicational style. Some think this is a hinderance. I suspect the average voter kind of likes it. He talks like a Chilean. Badly.
The media today presented Arrate as the surprise success. They should not have been surprised. Arrate has always been smart, calm and coherent. Plus he has the luxury of not having to worry about the real consequences of his proposals or criticisms, so on many issues he was right on. Good message, well delivered. Have a nice retirement.
The disappointment was MEO. I couldn't understand a word he said. His brain works faster than mouth. And next to the others, especially Arrate, MEO looked and sounded like a child. I suspect that in a tougher debate format, or in the US, another candidate would have told him that he will make a great president when he grows up.
Lloyd Bentsen, where are you when we need you?