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Democratic gov candidates off to an uninspiring start

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The anticipated first showdown this week between Democrats Mufi Hannemann and Neil Abercrombie turned out to be neither illuminating nor interesting.

The candidates for governor were hosted by the Hawaii Publishers Association in what was expected to be the match that would light the fire in this sparkless campaign.

Much of the campaign has been about when Hannemann would declare his candidacy and whether this was good or bad. The rest of the campaign has been about how much the two old political rivals would savage each other and whether that would help the campaign of leading GOP candidate Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona.

It turned out that the debate prep for both Hannemann and Abercrombie must have been heavy doses of Thorazine.

"Where’s the bouncy Neil? I like Abercrombie when he is bouncing," said one person after listening to the hourlong debate.

Usually one of the state’s most dramatic speakers, Abercrombie could have shown flashes of his rhetorical fire, but on Wednesday he was mostly soft-spoken and abstract.

Even when talking about his work in 2004 to bring together Hawaii’s $5.1 billion, 50-year Army housing project, Abercrombie talked obscurely about a "public-private partnership" instead of real roofs and jobs.

For his part, Hannemann continued to concentrate on two points: Hawaii needs a CEO, so his experience as mayor gives him that credence, and the mounting number of union and business endorsements shows that he is loved by all.

Both are valid arguments, but will that be enough to drive voters to his column?

Hannemann took a predictable swipe at Abercrombie, saying the former congressman, city councilman, state senator and state representative has been in office for 40 years, so how can he hold himself out as the candidate of change?

"How credible is he as the candidate of change?" Hannemann asks.

A quick survey of the crowd after the debate didn’t find Abercrombie or Hannemann scoring a win. Instead there was a feeling that both Democrats talked over and around the audience and not to it.

What voters will want are not more platitudes about change, but real answers to a Hawaii with serious problems defining itself as something more than a collection of sunny beaches and military garrisons.

Somewhere along the campaign, Hannemann and Abercrombie will have to construct a more powerful vision for the state and show more than just experience running meetings.

For all their own management problems, former governors Ben Cayetano and John Waihee had an instinctual connection to voters.

When she was at the top of her game, Gov. Linda Lingle also could tap into voters’ worries and wants.

The ability to know what is important makes the successful candidate, and the ability to express it makes the winner.

Richard Borreca writes on politics every Tuesday, Friday and Sunday. Reach him at

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