Both candidates are trying to project the image that they'll be the one to unify Wisconsin.
Both gubernatorial candidates spent most of the debate not really debating. No, they talked like they lived in two completely separate realities, responding to the same questions with completely different answers tailored for the residents of their own slice of Wisconsin.
Mary Burke did a good job representing the residents of her reality. She warmed up over the course of the debate, delivering solid answers backed up with facts and figures. The challenger always has a bit of an advantage over the incumbent in a debate, as they can point out failed policies. It's harder for Walker to trumpet his take on Act 10 when Burke is identifying future budget holes.
Walker, for his part, tried to counter Burke by continuing to campaign against Jim Doyle. That felt a bit like microwaved two-day-old leftovers. After all, Obama's attacks against the Bush legacy didn't work nearly as well in 2012. J.J. Abrams' first new Star Wars movie isn't going to have the tagline "At least it won't be as bad as The Phantom Menace."
A lot of people said Burke did well for a first-time debater, which I think is selling her short. She certainly did better than Barrett ever did, and he had a lot of opportunities to debate against Walker. Burke also did a better job than Tammy Baldwin did in the 2012 Senate debates, which really made clear that Baldwin hadn't faced a serious opponent in a decade.
Burke's only stumble came when she couldn't think of anything nice to say about Walker. To many of the people in her reality, the idea of giving Walker a compliment is laughable. In fact, there was even a Twitter hashtag game about it: #saysomethingniceaboutscott. For Republicans, this reinforces the idea that Democrats are pathologically against Walker as a person, a reversal of the Obama Derangement Syndrome seen at the presidential level.
While Burke stuck with facts, Walker's responses were more vague and emotional. His campaign understands that the race is more emotional than rational at this point, with each side offering enough facts to back up their reality. For his waffling supporters, Walker needs to make them feel good about the last four years. It also doesn't hurt that his repeated references to Tonette and the kids are a covert way to remind voters that Burke is unmarried.
The only time Walker's emotional push went over the top was on the environment -- his line about finding the right balance between commerce and environmental protection made me giggle aloud. He also thanked God for Wisconsin's frac sand.
As I said earlier, Walker's Doyle reruns were weak. The governor was more successful in his other callbacks to his 2010 run, reminding people in his reality that he is a humble, down-to-earth guy. Walker ignored the other reality in which he's a jet-setter regularly off on fundraising trips to New York and Texas.
In debates, incumbents don't usually run on records of their time in office; they'd rather run on their records of campaign promises. It makes sense, as many of our elected officials are better at running for office than actually serving in it.
Like a longtime touring band, candidates rush through the new stuff just so they can get back to the classic hits the audience wants to hear. In 2004, George Bush dusted off "compassionate conservatism" even though he had just spent four years starting wars and ripping apart Medicare. Obama brought out "hope and change" for a second round even though there was no longer even a "hope" that the status of Gitmo would "change" before 2017.
Walker's sole misstep was his position on the minimum wage. His statement that "we don't have a jobs problem in this state, we have a work problem" makes him look out of touch and unsympathetic to those looking for work or in low-paying jobs.
Both Walker and Burke had one stumble, but Walker's is a little easier to toss in a campaign ad compared to Burke's Shatner-esque pause on the say something nice about your opponent question.
Neither Burke nor Walker decided to attack their opponent that much. Maybe both thought they had more to lose by going negative. Or maybe it is because both were trying to steer clear of the gender gap minefield. Walker didn't want to look aggressive towards a female candidate at a time when he's trying to gain women voters. Burke didn't want to look "shrill" or "icy" or "bossy" or whatever sexist codewords are used against a strong woman.
Maybe it is important to note that each candidate looks like the grown-up in their version of Wisconsin. As the recent NYT/CBS poll showed, Wisconsin is the most polarized state in the nation, and I believe few people outside of talk radio hosts really enjoy being this divided.
Each side admits we are divided, but puts the blame for the division on the other side. Democrats believe Republicans pushed through a needlessly vindictive agenda, while Republicans believe Democrats are sore losers who refuse to play when they don’t get their way.
Each side has their attack dogs that make those points, and I'm often one of them. But the candidates in this race have often stayed above the fray themselves, projecting the image that they'll be the one to unify Wisconsin. Bringing up John Doe or a "plagiarized" jobs plan would damage that image. So Walker and Burke probably made the smartest choice by choosing to talk to their own parallel realities.
But for those handful of Wisconsinites who were looking for the debate to inform their decision come Election Day, it probably made for a pretty boring evening.