We can write issue stories about dairy program pricing until the cows come home, but let's face it: Many voters, or maybe even most, make their decisions not based on policies, but on perceptions.
There's no reason why the race between Republican Matt Doheny of Watertown and Rep. Bill Owens, D-Plattsburgh, would be much different. On Saturday, they both stumped in Jefferson County, and offered a contrast between the different styles of the two candidates, a contrast that can easily and alliteratively be summed up as a salesman vs. a statesman.
Mr. Doheny has said many times that he'll be the "salesman in chief" for the 21st Congressional District, stretching from Jefferson County in the southwest, across most of the Adirondack Park and along the border with Canada until it gets to Vermont, where it goes south to include Warren and Washington counties and part of Saratoga County.
His campaigning style — jovial, jocular, friendly and gregarious — reflects that promise.
At a belly-flop contest in Alexandria Bay, where Mr. Doheny grew up, Mr. Doheny greeted many people by name, asking friends about their wives and asking strangers where they went to high school. A conversation that he had with one Indian River Central High School grad compared Curtis Dukes to a player that was at the high school when Mr. Doheny, 42, was growing up in Alexandria Bay. The fact that Mr. Doheny is running for Congress didn't come up. The soft sell.
He greeted one man dressed as Fred Flintstone simply as "Smitty." He bought popcorn from a local youth hockey league that was raising money (Mr. Doheny a hockey player in high school).
At an event where people were slamming, belly-first, into
Lake Ontario the St. Lawrence River*, Mr. Doheny seemed to be the center of attention, and also just one of the guys, an Alexandria Bay river rat who was raised right here on High Street in the village.
The metaphor works in the broad scope, too. Mr. Doheny's pitch to voters is based almost exclusively on his economic know-how. The man knows his way around a spreadsheet. He's as fluent in business-speak as he is in nicknames among fellow Alex Bayers. It can be summed up thusly: Shouldn't somebody who knows about the economy — a man who knows a bit about sales — be trusted to put it back on the right track?
A few hours after the belly-flop contest, I went to Mr. Owens' ceremonial office opening in Watertown.
The mood was much different. Much of that could be chalked up to the fact that we're comparing a belly-flopping contest to a ceremonial office opening. But it can also be attributed to Mr. Owens' style.
He shook hands and exchanged words with almost everyone in the room, a distillation of local Democratic figures. Assemblywoman Addie Russell, D-Theresa, spoke from prepared remarks, and used the word "statesman" seemingly a half-dozen times. Mr. Owens stood, hands folded in front of him, solemnly receiving the encomiums.
When he spoke, he spoke about his efforts to work through bipartisan gridlock in Congress. He talked about how he teamed up with Rep. Chris Gibson, R-Kinderhook, and Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., to vote together as often as they could on the Farm Bill.
The room full of Democrats applauded respectfully in approval.
As a Democrat in an overwhelmingly Republican district, Mr. Owens has no choice but to attempt to rise above the Republican and Democrat divide. Bomb-throwing won't work in the north country for either party, but definitely not a Democrat. Mr. Owens, a tall and graying 63-year-old, looks every bit the statesman part.
So if we put tax cuts and Medicare aside, that's the choice voters face in this election. They're not mutually exclusive, of course. Mr. Owens will pitch his economic know-how; Mr. Doheny has released ads starring his new bride and a friend's dog, a sort of north country Camelot in the making.
Do they want someone who can sell the district with guile and charm — an economic tinkerer? Or do they want someone with gravitas, a guy who talks about working with Democrats and Republicans as a matter of course, who goes to Canada, like a diplomat or emissary, to bring home some jobs?
Like many of the questions that I pose here, these will be answered on Nov. 6.
*Correction: I've still much to learn about north country geography. The St. Lawrence River flows from Lake Ontario at Cape Vincent, of course.