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Could 3rd Jax mayoral debate decide election?

As of early Thursday afternoon, nearly 82,000 votes had been cast so far in the Jacksonville runoff election.

The Democrats have about a 1,000-vote lead in raw turnout. The polls are all over the place. Internal polls have Lenny Curry up by as many as 6 points, and other polls have Alvin Brown up by a few points as well.

The polls have a margin of error. These candidates do not.

Up and down the ticket of citywide races, the margin is too close to call, except in the At Large Group 3 race, where Tommy Hazouri looks to have a double-digit lead over Geoff Youngblood. Thursday night’s mayoral debate could have a bearing on every other citywide race, in terms of massaging turnout.

And what could decide it? The act of stacking the room.

The debate on Thursday night, at Jacksonville University, will be the first one in front of a significant crowd. The first two debates had a smattering of people in the room. The first one, because it was closed to all by a few members of the media and people affiliated with party and campaign apparatuses; the second one, because it was in a TV studio, where only a few select “live Tweeters” were granted entrance.

In this debate, each campaign gets an allotment of 150 tickets. Additionally, other people likely will be in the theater. In theory, each side will practice perfect decorum, not reacting to what one candidate or another says, especially as it might relate to the very occasional ad hominem attack.

In practice? There will be time for a couple of quasi-spontaneous reactions or outbursts, which will be greeted summarily with a call to observe decorum.

What this means is that the first side to exploit the window of plausible deniability will be the one that sets the tone of the debate. On Wednesday night, we saw Ken Jefferson bolstered by the reactions of his partisans, to the detriment of Mike Williams. Will the Democrats be first tonight to invert the paradigm?

The first two mayoral debates had all kinds of moments that would have elicited crowd reaction. From the sidestepping of the HRO question by a certain candidate to the dialogue about the so-called “race-baiting” ads by the Brown campaign, it’s a fun exercise to go imagine what the reaction to those highly charged conversations might have been if 300 of the most partisan people in the city were in the room.

A topic on tap for tonight: an article from the Times-Union, the headline of which asserts that “Mayor didn’t cut 147 police.”

The article points out that 30 officers were cut during the Peyton administration’s last budget, and that other officers were cut because of various restructurings.

Expect that the Curry side will have a counter to that, drawing the direct parallel between fewer cops and more murder and violent crime under Brown’s watch. The headline also doesn’t mention the community service officers, whose removal has shifted burdens onto overstretched field officers.

Another topic certain to be revisited: Curry’s support of the Jacksonville Journey, which the Brown campaign has struggled to counter-message.

In one debate, the mayor said his administration had “Jacksonville Journey-like” programs. At other times, the messaging from the campaign has boiled down to blaming Curry for problems with the Journey funding because he backed, as Duval GOP party chairman, the city council members who defunded the program.

An interesting tack the Curry campaign could take would be to argue that many African-American Democrats running for council have, in forums, extolled the virtues of Jacksonville Journey.

It would be very easy, in theory, to make the case that in messaging so hard to the left in recent weeks, adopting talking points that align with the national party, that Brown is out of touch with African-American Democrats on the council.

Speaking more generally, it will be interesting to see whether both campaigns adjust their talking points and tics that nettle people who are paying close attention. It will also be interesting to see who is seated in the front row of the event. A factor that looked to have thrown Williams off his game in the sheriff’s debate on Wednesday was the presence of Jimmy Holderfield in the front row in his line of sight. Holderfield, tellingly, got more sustained applause than Williams did.

The placement of Bill Bishop will be something to watch during the final mayoral debate.

Written By

A.G. Gancarski has been a working journalist for over two decades. Gancarski has been a correspondent for FloridaPolitics.com since 2014. In 2018, he was a finalist for an Association of Alternative Newsweeklies "best political column." He can be reached at a.g.gancarski@gmail.com.

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