What happened at tonight's debate?

Pablo Pérez, in debate prep mode.

OK, here’s our inst-analysis. Tonight, María Corina Machado wiped the floor with her opponents, though that probably won’t do her any good when the votes are counted. Henrique Capriles cemented his position as the guy most likely to unify the base, rally the Chaca-Chacas and win the election. Leopoldo López and Pablo Pérez underperformed once more. Diego Arria and Pablo Medina wasted everyone’s time. And Venevisión showed the depth of its soullessness and inanity to genuinely depressing effect.

I thought Leopoldo López’s performance was especially interesting…and not in a good way. The guy clearly got the message that he needed something to differentiate himself from Pablo Pérez and Henrique Capriles Radonski. That’s the good news. The bad news is that that something consisted of repeating his isn’t-crime-terrible theme in every single answer, though without projecting any sense that he had a clue what to do about it.

Mentioning his legal problems in his concluding statements and not offering anyone but Henrique a cabinet post are the sorts of moves that could come back to haunt him. It made him come across as somewhat petty and unlikeable. And the paleolithic “Hecho en Venezuela” economic message?! Puh-lease.

I have a hard time putting my finger on just why the entire package seemed so underwhelming. The guy’s whole image gives every sign of having been focus grouped, hair-dried and consulted to within an inch of its life, sucking out any vestigial trace of his actual personality and leaving behind a kind of animatronic facsimile of the man. Ugh.

Pablo Pérez was obviously coached on body language and over-learned his lesson. His messaging is still very, very HCR-like, but given he’s behind, failing to differentiate himself is lethal. His awkward use of hand gestures and his constant use of the third person to refer to himself is cringe-inducing. That tweet about him being like Buzz Lightyear before he realized he was a toy really ought to go viral…

Henrique Capriles Radonski had a minor wardrobe catastrophe with that hideous neck-tie, but he was relaxed and projected the kind of optimism that always wins elections. I know of fewer people whose entire appearance changes so much when he smiles as his does. He scored several home runs, particularly when responding about his position on plans to have Chávez prosecuted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague, and when correcting the journalist mistaking his ad for PP’s. Personable, precise, and passionate on his central theme on education, he seemed comfortable in his role as front runner. And when you’re the front runner and you improve on your last performance, you can go to bed confident you had a great night.

María Corina Machado would have won by a very wide margin had this been a college debate, but her framing at the end was perhaps too caustic. Her answers on a whole range of topics were bold and impressive – much, much more substantive and precise than those of her rivals. In many ways, she commanded the night – at times, we really had the eerie feeling she was pitching her candidacy directly at us (which, we should note, doesn’t seem electorally smart.) But her final statement, where she tried to draw a contrast between herself, Capriles, and Chavez, went a bit too far. She reminded us that, perhaps, she is in this more to say her bit than to win it. Still, she’s the best reason to watch the debates.

Diego Arria’s 15 minutes of fame are clearly up, and poor Pablo Medina was just embarrassing to watch. About Venevision’s gawdawful, gimmicky staging, pointless computer graphics and pathetic, clueless foreign questioners the less said the better.

Now, if we ask nicely, pretty please could we ditch the 1-minute time limit for the next debate and have a single, smart, incisive questioner who encourages the candidates to engage with one another’s responses?!

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