Joe Conason's Journal

Did Jeb Bush get a sneak peek at debate questions?

By Salon Staff

Published October 1, 2002 3:06PM (EDT)

Jeb's Psychic Hotline?
Either Jeb Bush has extraordinary psychic powers, or he learned something he shouldn't have known before last Friday's Florida Network gubernatorial debate. The McBride campaign is wondering why the governor knew the name of a citizen questioner before her turn came, because under the rules of the debate at WJXT, the Jacksonville TV station, neither candidate was supposed to be told anything in advance.

What happened, as anyone can see on the C-SPAN videotape of the debate, was as follows:

Moderator Michael Putney introduces the candidate and then explains the format. "The questions will be asked by citizens from around the state. Florida Network stations collected more than 100 questions by voters and we selected the ones we think reflect the concerns of most Floridians. They [meaning the candidates] have not seen the questions." Nothing untoward occurs during the first three questions.

Question 4, which concerned voting problems, comes from a woman named Fran Gosselin. Bush answers first, and at approximate 17:58 (on the RealPlayer timer), says, "For the first time ever, for the first time, Sylvia ..."

He completes his answer, and McBride offers a rebuttal. Then at approximately 20:06, the moderator introduces Question 5. "It's from Sylvia Scott, of Miami." So why did Bush address Fran as Sylvia, when he shouldn't have known there was a Sylvia in the house, so to speak? Was he working from a script provided in advance, as some of the viewers who e-mailed me about this suspect?

Michael Putney says that's just ridiculous. "Let me be absolutely clear about this: Neither candidate had advance knowledge of either the questions or the names of the citizens asking them," he replied to my questions in an e-mail this morning. And he has an alternate theory: "I think I know why Bush did say 'Sylvia' when the questioner was 'Fran.' On a monitor about 15 feet in front of the candidates, but not visible on any camera, the director would cue up the next questioner and freeze it -- with the 'super' line with the questioner's name beneath it. My guess is that Gov. Bush looked up and saw the name 'Fran' and her face on the monitor and inadvertently used it rather than 'Sylvia.' Big deal, right? The McBride campaign is desperately trying to find a conspiracy where none exists."

Clearly, Putney meant to say that Bush saw the name "Sylvia" on the monitor, rather than vice versa. And maybe he's right -- it isn't easy to tell from the C-SPAN tape what Bush is looking at when he answers.

Still, somebody in the Florida press corps should review the videotape carefully and ask Bush the "Sylvia" question. For extra credit, they might also ask the Florida Network why the official transcript of the debate dropped the governor's curious reference to Sylvia when it is perfectly audible on the tape.
[9:21 a.m. PDT, Oct. 1, 2002]

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