Raleigh, N.C. — Charles Kiser isn't so much concerned about how often Sen. Kay Hagan has voted with President Barack Obama or state House Speaker Thom Tillis' ties to the Koch brothers.
Rather, he'd like to hear two candidates for U.S. Senate debate this week about how they would break what seems like an unproductive stalemate in Washington, D.C.
"The current makeup of the Senate just doesn't seem to be getting anything done," said Kiser, 58, of Wake Forrest.
The automobile dealership finance manager said he'd like the federal government make headway into an road construction and infrastructure program that would be good for travelers and the economy but doesn't seem to be going anywhere due to political traffic jams.
The U.S. Senate debate, hosted by the North Carolina Association of Broadcasters, will be carried live on WRAL-TV and online by WRAL.com at 7 p.m. Wednesday. It is the first of two scheduled face-to-face encounters for Tillis and Hagan before Election Day.
Kiser said he would rather not see Hagan, a Democrat, and Tillis, a Republican, spend their time attacking one another with charges he has seen repeated in television advertising for most of this year.
"Instead of talking about who they're going to hang out with or who the other guy's buddies are, talk about some progress," Kiser said. "Anybody can throw rocks. That's easy, but that's not telling us anything about what's going to get done."
Political scientists and consultants who are following the campaign say Kiser is likely to be disappointed.
U.S. Senate debates
The North Carolina Association of Broadcasters will host two U.S. Senate debates between Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan and Republican state House Speaker Thom Tillis.
WRAL will carry both debates live on TV and online.
The Sept. 3 debate will air at 7 p.m. and be moderated by Norah O'Donnell, co-anchor of CBS This Morning and substitute host for CBS' Sunday morning show, Face the Nation.
The Oct. 7 debate will air at 7 p.m. and be moderated by George Stephanopoulos, ABC News anchor and co-anchor of ABC's Good Morning America.
"I think the themes of the campaign are already pretty well defined," said Dee Stewart, president of The Stewart Group, a Raleigh-based political consulting firm that works for Republicans. "I look for both candidates to spend a lot of time defending their record."
Hagan, he said, will likely attack Tillis based on his record in the General Assembly, criticizing him for policies that Democrats say cut funding to education. Meanwhile, Tillis will emphasize Hagan's ties to Obama and her support for the Affordable Care Act.
Michael Bitzer, provost and political science professor at Catawba College, said the candidates will be looking for chances to pivot away from whatever moderator Norah O’Donnell, co-anchor of CBS This Morning, asks and toward a set of ready-made talking points.
"We hope every election cycle that debates will give us the real policy meat that both candidates are advocating for," Bitzer said. "In reality, we generally tend to get more of the same. What we've seen so far is either 'I hate Raleigh,' or 'I hate Washington,' ergo 'I hate you.'"
Polls show Tillis and Hagan are running close to one another as the campaign heads into its final stretch, with most surveys putting the pair within the margin or error – essentially making it a dead heat. With battle lines so firmly drawn and reinforced over the summer, Bitzer said the question for the candidates is who can do something that will give them an edge.
"The narrative to me seems so baked at this point, we're pretty much dealing with what's going to be the frosting. What can one side do or not do to upset the very delicate balance," he said.
Impact may not be apparent at first
Kiser, the finance manager, said he has sought answers to questions from both Hagan and U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, a Winston-Salem Republican who is not up for election this year.
"Both senators have been very helpful," he said. "I want to be a fan of Kay Hagan. She's been a good senator."
But, Kiser said, he may vote for Tillis if he believes it will help break the congressional policy logjam that pits a Republican-controlled House against a Democrat-controlled Senate.
He'll be looking for the candidate who convinces him that they can break the logjam.
But he may be something of an outlier among debate viewers, many of who will tune in with their minds made up.
"I suspect the people who are undecided and will actually turn out to vote will remain undecided up until a couple days before they walk into the voting booth," said Eric Heberlig, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
That means both candidates will be using the debate to talk to their supporters.
Gary Pearce, a longtime Democratic consultant, said candidates should be working just as hard on style as on substance in order not to turn away viewers like Kiser.
"I'm a firm believer in the Bugs Bunny rule," Pearce said, attributing the notion to veteran TV journalist Jeff Greenfield.
Much as conflicts between Bugs Bunny and antagonists such as Elmer Fudd and Daffy Duck were more about style than substance, political debates often are often "won" based on who handles the format the best.
"The winner of the debate is always the most comfortable person in the room," Pearce said.
Given that, Tillis might have something of an advantage. The business consultant and House speaker has developed a comfort level speaking to cameras and off the cuff that Hagan, a former state senators and first-term incumbent, has never quite acquired.
But Pearce cautioned that Tillis needed to avoid overconfidence, lest he come off as smug and run off voters like Kiser.
"Smooth can come across as arrogant. That's the thing he (Tillis) has to avoid," Pearce said.
Running from Obama?
A quick, unscientific survey of readers and viewers over social media found no shortage of topics in which those watching the debate might be interested. Economic policy, particularly the minimum wage, came up as a concern, as did the candidates' positions on renewable energy and natural gas exploration.
Given the turmoil in the Middle East, from ISIS' campaign through Iraq to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a number of those contacted said they would like to see both candidates talk about foreign affairs.
"It's going to be really interesting to watch Kay Hagan try to run away from Obama," Stewart said.
While Stewart suggested that Hagan's support for the Affordable Care Act, what some call "Obamacare," that would tie her down, Obama himself recently used a visit to North Carolina to address his administration's handling of veterans' issues. Tillis has used a scandal revolving around lengthy waits and cover-ups at local VA offices to attack Hagan and tie her to the president. At the same time, Hagan has used the issue to show her independence from the administration, from being critical of the president to pushing for more resources in North Carolina VA clinics.
It's also worth noting that Hagan did not run from Obama on that recent visit but greeted him at the airport.
No matter the policies debated, Pearce said, the debate itself may change very little in the dynamics of the race.
"They (debates) rarely make a big difference unless somebody makes a bonehead move," Pearce said.
For example, Texas Gov. Rick Perry's "oops" moment from 2012 in which he was unable to remember which federal bureaucracies he wanted to eliminate went a long way to dooming his primary run.
Heberlig agreed, up to a point, saying it would be the coverage of the debate in newspapers, on television and in social media that would likely catch the attention of swing voters. That leaves open the possibility a particularly good moment for a candidate could also catch fire.
"If there's a gaffe or a particularly good soundbite, that becomes the focal point," Heberlig said.
While many potential voters might not settle in for an hour debate, they will take the time to watch a 30-second clip or watch a minute of news.
"The stakes are pretty high for both of (the candidates)," he said. "If there's a mistake, they don't have much of an opportunity to turn it around."