Talk about an awkward debate moment.
During a debate in Nebraska last week, one Republican Senate candidate, Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning, accused his opponent, state Treasurer Don Stenberg, of being “creepy” for following his 14-year-old daughter on Twitter.
And let’s just say that Stenberg was caught off-guard. Here’s the video:
In case you missed it, Bruning unleashed this salvo:
“Let me ask you this, Don. This Sunday, my daughter walks in, and says, ‘Don Stenberg’s trying to follow me on Twitter.’ My daughter’s 14-years-old. Now you tell me: I’d like to know, why does a 62-year-old man want to follow a 14-year-old girl on Twitter? I’d really like to know. She said, ‘Dad, that’s kind of creepy.'”
In return, Mr. Stenberg said the following:
“Quite honestly, I don’t do my own Twitter. Dan Parsons does it for me. We’ve got thousands and thousands of folks, and as soon as we get done here, I’ll call Dan and make sure that’s taken off. I don’t think it’s appropriate.”
That’s not a bad verbal response, but note his body language. His vocal delivery is much less sure than it was in his previous answer, and his post-answer body language reveals obvious anger. It’s hard to tell whether his ire is directed at his opponent or at his aide who requested to follow Bruning’s daughter; either way, his annoyance is obvious.
He lost control of the moment—and as a result, he lost the exchange
In these situations, maintaining control is critical. Stenberg’s approach of running toward the charge (“I don’t think it’s appropriate”) was a good one. But he should have delivered that line (or my suggested lines below) with full confidence:
“Jon, I agree with you. Children should not be fodder in political campaigns, and this is the first I’m hearing that one of my campaign aides tried to follow your daughter on Twitter. As soon as this debate ends, I’m going to have a conversation with my staff and make sure nothing like that ever happens again.”
Once he successfully finished running toward the charge, he could have taken the opportunity to counter-attack:
“But you know, Jon, I’m disappointed in you. Instead of speaking to me privately about this, one father to another, you opted to use this situation as an opportunity to score cheap political points. That’s exactly the kind of political stunt voters are sick of, and as far as I’m concerned, you ought to be ashamed of yourself.”
It’s easy to come up with the right responses in hindsight, and Stenberg’s reaction was entirely human. But he missed a golden opportunity to thwart the attack by turning it against his opponent—and unnecessarily lost the exchange as a result.