Between the Lines: Naked truth on skinny-dipping candidates

Vermonters will be asked to choose between two very different gubernatorial candidates this fall, and two different visions of Vermont.

But at least along the way, we can be assured of some laughs.

Republican Brian Dubie sees a state imperiled by high taxes, anti-business sentiment and wasteful education spending. He’s against reproductive choice and gay marriage.

Democrat Peter Shumlin sees a state that has made great progress on gay marriage while also defending reproductive choice, but that now needs single-payer health care.

Yet thanks to Monday’s first debate of the general election campaign, we now know both candidates have been skinny-dipping.

That’s because, along with the weighty matters kicked around by Dubie and Shumlin in their first debate, there was also a query about their swimming history. I guess it was the Vermont equivalent of the “boxers or briefs” question tossed at Bill Clinton during an earlier MTV forum for young people.

It’ll be interesting to see if Brian Dubie can get elected by reading from the same script as his predecessor, Middlebury Republican Jim Douglas. The anti-tax, anti-regulation mantra worked well for Douglas. But it’s an open question whether an increasingly liberal electorate will decide it’s heard enough of that particular song.

Also worth watching: Can Shumlin keep his quick tongue and combative instincts under control between now and November? He’s managed to stay polite in this campaign to date. But his reputation persists as being somewhat sharp-elbowed, at least by Vermont’s gentle standard.

Judging by the early indications from Monday’s exchanges, Shumlin has an edge over Dubie in Debate 101. Shumlin has his talking points down, having endured more than a couple dozen numbing Democratic primary debates.

By comparison, the perhaps rusty Dubie opined in Monday’s debate that “even housewives” were smart enough to do a better job with the state budget than the Democratic Legislature had done.

I can see it now, the new third wing of the GOP campaign: Stupid Housewives for Dubie.

But if he keeps going this way, the lieutenant governor might not get many votes from surrendered housewives, either. The state, he said in Monday’s debate, should “do what families must do … shrink middle management.”

Family middle management? Um, would that be children?

Official movie of the Dubie campaign: “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.”

And then there was that deliciously Freudian slip in which Dubie said that to cut the cost of state government, Vermont should “target the most vulnerable.”

A Dubie spokesman said later that he meant to say Vermont should “protect the most vulnerable.”

But with the lieutenant governor suggesting he can cut state spending by $100 million next year, we shouldn’t be surprised if a few of Vermont’s most vulnerable are feeling even more vulnerable today.

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Before it fades into obscurity, I can’t help but note the folly of State Sen. Doug Racine’s demand for a recount in the Democratic primary. After more than two weeks of waiting, the surprisingly speedy recount showed that not only had Racine truly lost to Shumlin in the Democratic primary, he actually got fewer votes than the initial tallies had shown.

If Shumlin loses this fall’s election — and it will surely be a close one — Democrats will look back in anger at Racine’s demand for a recount.

The recount delayed the true start of the Shumlin campaign at a critical time, forcing him to go into stall mode when he could have been out raising money and hiring staff.

The lengthy uncertainty engendered by the recount — and the decision of Shumlin, Racine, and the third-place Deb Markowitz to campaign together — presented Vermonters with the specter of a three-headed, pre-recount zombie, Vermont’s version of the Politically Undead.

Democrats tried to put the best possible public face on the recount, though I suspect they were privately gnashing their teeth. I certainly felt that Racine’s demand for a recount was unwarranted given the size of Shumlin’s lead compared to the number of votes cast.

Shumlin, too, must have been privately seething. But he managed to bite his tongue and play along until the recount was finalized.

Racine indicated he felt pressured by his supporters to ask for a recount. But his never-say-die narcissism may cost the Democrats the governor’s seat, in a short general-election campaign against a very well funded Republican.

Headline of the primary season, by the way, was in the Burlington Free Press, above its front-page report of the recount results: “Shumlin wins... again.”

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Along with Racine, East Middlebury’s Amy Sheldon was another unlucky hopeful who got a couple lessons in politics over the past month.

Sheldon waged a spirited write-in campaign for state senate in the local Democratic primary against incumbent State Sen. Harold Giard, who himself was running as a write-in because he failed to file his re-election campaign papers in time. Sheldon narrowly lost but made a strong showing.

After that close defeat Sheldon again lost — this time by a single vote — when the county Democratic committee gathered to name a replacement for the unopposed-for-reelection Rep. Steve Maier, who puzzlingly decided after the primary against running for another term.

In the committee’s vote, Sheldon lost by a 6-5 tally to Paul Ralston, he of the Vermont Coffee Company. Ralston will now join Rep. Betty Nuovo as Middlebury’s contingent in the House. Some observers suggested that Sheldon’s challenge to the incumbent Giard cost her the committee’s support.

Ralston’s business background will no doubt be the butt of a few good-natured jokes. Herbert Hoover ran for president promising “a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage.” Will Ralston seek reelection in 2012 promising an Americano in every cup?

As for Sheldon and Racine, in their respective write-in campaign and recount request, they’ve had hard reminders of a reality that those in the political arena often face: You’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.

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