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Whole kernel Cornyn

By Gilbert Garcia

During their second televised debate, you could tell that John Cornyn and Rick Noriega were serious about solving our nation's energy problems -- because they both spent the entire hour conserving their energy.

To be fair, the two Texas candidates for the U.S. Senate fired plenty of catty insults at each other, but they did it with all the enthusiasm of a soon-to-be-retired DMV attendant. Cornyn is snow-topped and granite-jawed, while Noriega is dome-pated and round-faced, and they make up in stern relentlessness what they lack in electricity and inspiration.

Right off the bat, when both were asked to name an area of weakness where they would need help from their advisers, they showed a Palin-like ability to pivot themselves into a different question. Cornyn bragged about his knowledge of criminal justice and the judiciary (Presumably, his weakness is that he's too brilliant, too insightful.) Noriega gushed about his ability to bring people together (as long as none of those people are named Cornyn) and somehow found an opportunity to attack his rival: "Voting with the administration 95 percent of the time, that's not leadership, that's a herd mentality."

Not to be outdone, Cornyn went after Noriega over the state rep's participation in a 2003 Democratic walkout to Ardmore, Oklahoma to fight a GOP-led redistricting bill: "I'm shocked to hear Representative Noriega say he showed leadership by cutting and running by going to Oklahoma."

Noriega blasted the recently passed $700-billion federal bailout of crippled financial institutions, while Cornyn defended it with a pronouncement we'll probably never again hear from the Republican senator, or any elected official in this country: "Good for Barack Obama, good for John McCain!"

A common argument from Cornyn is that Noriega will talk you deaf about all the proposals that he hates, but never offers viable plans of his own. "What I'm hearing Representative Noriega say is that he would have done nothing `about the financial crisis`."

Things got especially testy (remember, I said testy, not exciting) when Noriega dinged Cornyn for taking $4 million in campaign contributions from "your buddies on Wall Street." When he suggested that Cornyn was a lobbyist's dream, Cornyn shot back that Noriega certainly knew a lot about lobbying "because it was his chosen profession." (Noriega lobbied in Austin for a public utilities firm before becoming a legislator himself.)

From there, they traded the usual talking points about energy, higher education, and health insurance, but the question-and-answer section of the debate ended on a weird note when moderator Shelly Kofler asked a hypothetical question about immigration: If a contractor hires undocumented immigrants to do some work on your home, and you know they're undocumented, would you report them?

This is one of those uncomfortable, no-win questions, like the one Bernard Shaw threw at Michael Dukakis in 1988 about whether Kitty Dukakis getting raped would affect his opposition to the death penalty. Noriega tried to squirm out of it, and when Kofler pressed him, he wanly asked, "How would I know `they're undocumented`?" "They told you," Kofler shot back. Clearly stuck, Noriega near-mumbled, "Then, of course, I'd report them." But he quickly rejected the hypothetical, calling it "unfair."

Their closing statements were glorified soundbites, but Noriega's probably made the more pertinent point. While Cornyn vaguely stated, "I want to make Washington more like Texas," Noriega stole a page from Ronald Reagan's 1980 playbook, with this evergreen argument against incumbency: "Are we better off today than we were six years ago?"

Few Texans would say we are, but this election will be decided on who they blame for the mess.

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