FORT WAYNE – On Sunday evening, all three GOP Senate hopefuls accomplished the first goal of a successful candidate: Don’t say something stupid that makes the debate relevant. Debates are something the media likes, not the candidates.  
               
WISH-TV has a long and distinguished news history in this state. WANE-TV in Fort Wayne has been a junior partner with WISH since it became WANE in the early 1950s, and has remained so, even as Nexstar and Sinclair take over the television world. There are some big differences between WANE and WISH however, starting with the fact that WANE is a CBS affiliate. WANE is and has been the dominant station in our market.  

The chosen time for the debate didn’t matter much to WISH, but it preempted “60 Minutes” in Fort Wayne (not that I care but obviously some people do). What did astound me, given that decision, was the choice of moderators.  WANE-TV has at least six people who would have been superior panelists to those selected. Heather Herron, Brett Thomas, Terra Brantley, Alyssa Ivanson, Rod Hissong, and Pat Hoffman each do great work, and yet not one was utilized.  
               
Who made such a decision? It merely reinforces to those in Northern Indiana the fundamental bias of Indianapolis news people who can’t seem to see anything but lake cottages and Canada north of Hamilton County. The questions were biased, mostly irrelevant gotcha journalism.  Most of the hour was spent on topics not interesting, challenging or relevant to a Republican primary that seems to be closely contested.  
               
Republicans are not interested in hearing whether the candidates are for gun control. Democrats are interested in gun control. Pick an issue – taxes, marijuana, the border (e.g. what type of fence/wall do the candidates favor, not whether to build one) – and the point is the same. We want to know their passion, who will fight for such positions, and some of the nuances on our side of the issues.   
               
Indiana media, especially up in my region of the state, remains stronger than in most of the country; but if it fails to adjust to the times and just continues down the path of jamming uniform liberal-leaning upper-class views at odds with the majority of people of this state, it will contract at an even faster rate than it already is. In my opinion, especially considering Trump’s dominating victories in Indiana, this trend is more important than who wins the Republican nomination for Senate. The clear loser in the debate was the media, specifically WISH-TV.
 
As for the candidates, Luke Messer may have won on traditional debate points.  He was more active and focused than in the past. He didn’t just talk in generalities as he tends to do. He defended tough votes well, including to Braun (who seemed clueless at times). However, Messer’s claim that he is the only truth-teller is mostly just a cover to say, since he’s running a weak third, he is now the biggest attack dog in the race.
               
Debates, especially ones with questions easily deflected into the candidate’s chosen path, will then spin on optics because the media failed to highlight what primary voters wanted to know. Messer lost any policy edge he had with a goofy grin. Rokita wore more a grimace than a smile. Braun’s demeanor was more impatient, an exaggerated form of the Mitch Daniels look of restrained tolerance; Daniels treats words as though God has a word budget. Ultimately Messer’s goofy smile was such an overreaction (“please like me, I’m a nice guy”) that it was off-putting.
               
The tree-farming tax break for Braun is one debate point that could loom large as this campaign closes. I don’t fully understand the gas user tax backlash, but I do understand this principle: If you vote to raise taxes on most people, but vote for special tax break for yourself, it is a problem. In the debate, Braun used a classic political trick when asked if he sought an ethics waiver by basically saying that it didn’t apply.  But the congressmen quickly pointed out that he had failed to answer the question. Braun admitted that, in fact, he just asked himself and didn’t seek an ethics opinion on the vote. This is likely to come up again over the next few weeks because Braun is closing in on possible upset of Rokita.
               
If you think negative attacks and ads backfire, don’t pretend to be a journalist. Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders “fire up” people because they identify their enemies clearly. There are no shades of gray. Too much nastiness in ads can backfire, especially if done humorlessly, but they are used because they work. Voters don’t trust the media and they feel candidates are less than honest. They understand attack ads are a lot smoke but assume there’s a fire somewhere in there.
               
As we enter the last weeks of this campaign, here are the campaign strategies that have increasingly become apparent:

1.) Braun had a clear media strategy and he has implemented it almost flawlessly.  Outsider, businessman, cardboard cutout opponents who are non-practicing lawyers. He developed the foundation while the others were asleep, then attacked with humor. When they counterattacked, he responded with a nice family ad making them look negative (Braun is controlling the rhythm of this race). He ignored the facts that he was a long-time Democrat and officeholder. He has spent lots of money. Lots and lots of money.

2.) Rokita’s approach has been less disciplined (ironic for a long-time control freak), but the net result still is consistent. Be Trump Jr., appeal to conservatives, run around the state like there is a scorecard somewhere of hands shaken and counties covered. Take a weakness —established Republican leaders dislike him intensely — and turn it into a strength. Bait them, in fact. Raise enough money to be in the race, then punch and keep punching because some will land. It has worked well for both him and Trump in Indiana. Make America Great Again.  

3.) Messer had a strategy most effective to become a state chairman, Republican conference chairman, maybe win a convention, and something that could, for example, get you picked as the Fishers city attorney while living in Washington. And be a good congressman, which tends to get lost in politics today. To be completely fair, he’s a responsible leader in a world that doesn’t value that much right now. In other words, he’s a weak third if there is much of a vote.  

Souder is a former Republican Indiana congressman.