Campaign strategies depend on voters’ take

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Jonathan McElvy / Guest columnist

Even if you don’t care a thing in the world about politics, you might enjoy attempting to understand the strategy of Alabama’s gubernatorial candidates in this year’s election. Incumbent Bob Riley and former Gov. Don Siegelman have put on a political clinic in the past two weeks.

Start with Siegelman, who somehow finds his way into state newspapers and on TV screens when the rest of the candidates are at home dreaming up ways to get statewide publicity.

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In a political move destined to go absolutely nowhere, Siegelman has called for a series of debates among the four major candidates for governor, including Riley, Roy Moore and Lucy Baxley. It’s a safe bet that Siegelman knew he would lure no other candidate into his debate idea, but he threw out the bobber anyway.

Why did he do it? Among the four candidates, Siegelman is by far the best on his feet. As we’ve discussed in prior columns, Siegelman has spent his entire professional life focused on becoming Alabama’s governor, and with his oratorical ability, Siegelman could stand in a room full of southern Baptists and leave with about half of their votes. But there’s another reason Siegelman called for the debates.

In what has become tradition in major political races, the candidate who first calls for debates usually has an advantage over his or her opponents. Now that Riley, Moore and Baxley has all declined the invitation (which Siegelman knew would happen), Siegelman can now go to state voters and complain that the other candidates don’t care about addressing the issues facing Alabama. It’s not much of a political victory, but Siegelman figures it’s a small win that may influence a small bloc of voters.

Siegelman’s strategic move, however, was miniscule when compared to Riley’s State of the State address last week. Each year, the governor gives a televised speech to members of the Alabama Legislature, the Alabama Supreme Court, members of his cabinet, statewide office holders and a few select guests. (As an interesting side note, the network affiliates like NBC, CBS and ABC in Birmingham and Tuscaloosa did not carry Riley’s speech. It only aired on public television.)

About three years ago, Riley toured the state with overly intelligent members of his staff and pitched the state’s largest tax increase in history. Abandoning all Republican common sense, Riley suggested raising taxes by more than $1.2 billion. Of course the tax hike was defeated by state voters – despite the support of nearly every Democrat, a handful of Republicans and almost all statewide media.

So in his State of the State address, Riley fell back in line with traditional Republican ideals, proposing a tax cut of nearly $200 million over the next five years. He toed the line on other Republican issues, as well. For instance, Riley suggested more reform and accountability in government, term limits to siphon off career politicians, a sales tax holiday, stiffer penalties for those who harm children, and a concerted effort to stop the expansion of gambling in Alabama.

You wouldn’t necessarily say Riley has “flip-flopped” on major issues facing the state, but he sure doesn’t sound like the same governor he was two or three years ago. This is the same person who wanted to increase taxes and who didn’t support a bill that would toughen penalties on people who assault or murder an unborn child.

Riley’s strategy is simple: He’s facing an extremely conservative opponent in Roy Moore, and he must find a way to get “right” – in a manner of speaking. Riley’s strategy is to hope Alabama voters – conservatives, in particular – forget about the first half of his administration and remember the last two years. He wants voters to remember economic success, not tax-increase failure.

It’s unclear whether this strategy will work, but many voters have a short memory, and Riley knows that. Whether Moore capitalizes on Riley’s change of heart might determine who wins the Republican primary.

Reach Jonathan McElvy at, or read more of his opinions at