On my way out of Mississippi, a few reporter friends e-mailed me with a problem. They were being assigned to cover an unexpectedly hot race—no polls had shown Chris McDaniel losing steam since a supporter illegally videotaped Sen. Thad Cochran's bedridden wife in a nursing home. And yet they were struggling to get the McDaniel or Cochran campaigns to put them on an event schedule.
This is the final day of campaigning in the Senate race, and neither candidate is doing many events that offer media availability. One reason is that Cochran, who has been in Congress since 1972, is not exactly shining in his short interviews. After Cochran told a reporter he wouldn't debate McDaniel because he's "not running for the debate team," the rival's campaign clipped a video of the senator looking a little glib and distracted.
It wasn't Cochran's only poor interview. Through the spring, as McDaniel built momentum, Cochran struggled to answer a fairly easy question -- what did he think of the Tea Party movement? Twice, he said he didn't know much about it. When newspapers editorialized for Cochran to debate McDaniel, he never came up with a compelling reason not to other than a theory that McDaniel was trying to make him "look bad." (Well, yeah. It's a campaign.)
And this week, on the same day, Cochran seemed confused by two questions about the race. At a stop in Hattiesburg, Dan Balz asked Cochran about the Affordable Care Act. "I think we need to monitor any federal programs that provide services and assistance to people who need help, and this is an example of an important effort by the federal government to help make health care available, accessible and affordable," said the senator. Afterwards, as Balz reported, the Cochran campaign called him to say the senator thought the question was about the VA. When I talked to Cochran, I asked why he thought it was important for his campaign to run ads about the videotaping scandal. "I can’t control other people’s right to free speech, and I’m not going to try to," he said, apparently unaware that the ad was his.
Later that day, the campaign suggested to me that he'd misunderstood the question. From my tape, here's how I asked it, after Politico's Alex Burns had already asked a question about the scandal.
Slate: Your TV ads right now describe what happened, describe the break-in at the nursing home. Why do you think it's important for voters to see that and see Clayton Kelly with your opponent?
Cochran: I didn't understand your question.
Slate: You're running campaign ads that tell the story of the break-in at the home, of the blogger's video break-in. Why do you think it's important for voters to see that story?
A bit of a ramble, maybe, but not an indirect question. Like Bob Bennett, like Richard Lugar, one of the factors hurting Cochran is simply that he's in his 70s. He hasn't faced a challenge for decades. He's, at best, out of practice -- at worst, he's missing a few steps.