Sparks flew between Sen. Jon Tester and his Republican challenger, Congressman Denny Rehberg, last night in Kalispell. Over the course of the third Senate debate, hosted by the Daily Inter Lake, Tester jabbed at Rehberg for supporting Real ID and the Patriot Act, for failing to pass a Farm Bill in the U.S. House and for “putting two wars on the credit card.” Rehberg parried with his own lines of attack, mostly centering on Tester’s support for the federal stimulus package and the Affordable Care Act. It took Rehberg less than a minute during his opening remarks to level the now-tired accusation that Tester votes with President Obama “95 percent of the time.” Tester later countered the point, singling his wife, Sharla, out of the audience. “Sorry, hun,” the Senator said. “But I don’t even agree with you 95 percent of the time.” A video of the debate is posted below.
In the middle of it all—literally—Libertarian Dan Cox came draped in a cloak of invisibility (which, according to the Dungeons & Dragons Online wiki, also gave him +2 protection against enchantments). Tester and Rehberg largely ignored the man situated at the lectern between them as they traded barbs, and many of the questions asked of the candidates were in some way related to taxes or government programs—topics that Cox struggled to find new ways to answer beyond his call for keeping big government “out of your life and out of your pocket.” My Twitter feed lit up with comments about how oblivious the entire debate seemed to be of Cox’s presence.
As the debate wore on, Cox began to emerge as something more than an also-ran. He went the route of the observational comedian. During a particularly pointed back-and-forth between Tester and Rehberg over a question on the estate tax, Cox rebuffed both candidates. “There are three of us in this race,” he said. His comment had the audience in stitches. Later, in response to a question about the Dodd-Frank reform act, Cox launched into an aside. “We keep hearing [from the candidates] that Rehberg or Tester is the wrong choice,” he said. “I agree with both.” Again, laughter.
The stakes in Sunday night’s debate were particularly high for Cox, who polled at 8 percent in mid-October, according to Public Policy Polling’s latest data. Cox was last present at the Senate debate in Big Sky in June; he was not invited to the Oct. 7 debate in Billings, nor was he invited to the fourth and final debate in Bozeman Oct. 20. Kalispell was Cox’s last chance to be seen alongside the other candidates.
Tester and Rehberg each won a few solid blows over the course of the 80-minute debate. Rehberg came off as more restrained than during the Billings debate, where many critiqued his fast speech and flailing arms. Tester, meanwhile, managed to duck the majority of Rehberg’s attacks, swinging criticism of the stimulus package around by highlighting several stimulus funded projects in the Kalispell area. But Cox’s detachment made him perhaps a more interesting character to watch. His tongue-in-cheek observations—unacknowledged by Tester and Rehberg alike—served a role akin to a Grecian chorus. At one point, Rehberg commented that not a single person in the room didn’t support the safety net of federal programs and subsidies contained in the Farm Bill. Cox, ever the opponent of government spending, stood not ten feet to Rehberg’s right, grinning and waiting for his rebuttal.