Ralston Grills the GOP Gang

In advance of Nevada caucus, tough questions for the candidates

NEVADA — It’s always refreshing to see a journalist who’s not afraid to ask the tough questions—especially the tough follow-up questions. And when that journalist is appearing on television, instead of in print, it’s even more of a treat.

Nevadans who’ve watched Jon Ralston’s “Face to Face” TV program for years know of his rapid-fire delivery and his take-no-prisoners style. This week, he has snared in-depth interviews with all four Republican presidential contenders as they seek support in Saturday’s caucuses. After the grillings Rick Santorum, Ron Paul, and Mitt Romney got on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday respectively, maybe the only unasked question is, “Did the candidates know what they were in for?” (Newt Gingrich is scheduled to appear on Friday’s program.)

While the issue isn’t the biggest concern of most people in Nevada—where a large majority of homeowners owe more on their mortgages than their houses are worth—Donald Trump’s Thursday endorsement of Mitt Romney, made inside Trump’s golden tower along the Las Vegas Strip, was fertile ground for Ralston’s plow. He opened with a question that highlighted Trump’s baleful influence on the rhetoric of campaign 2012.

“I cannot imagine why in the world you would take an endorsement from Donald Trump, a guy who ran for president briefly, basically on one platform—that the President was born somewhere else,” the veteran reporter began.

“He’s a guy who says very nasty things about you: ‘He doesn’t have a stellar record as Governor,’ he said. He’s essentially said that you ran small businesses, you didn’t really create jobs. Why would you take an endorsement from this guy?” (Romney responded that he and Trump agree that China is riding “roughshod” over the American economy, adding that they’re on “the same team.”)

It was good stuff. But what’s most notable is the tenacity Ralston displays as an interviewer. He quizzed the former senator, the sitting congressman, and the former governor about the foreclosure crisis that has devastated the Nevada housing market, and didn’t back away when his guests begin to squirm.

In some cases, this focus meant steering the conversation away from the candidate’s preferred talking points.

“Eighty percent maybe of the people that are watching this program are underwater on their houses,” Ralston stated in the windup pitch to Ron Paul. “They don’t care about the Federal Reserve. They don’t care about bailing out banks. They care about what are you going to do, if you become President, to help them? Is the answer, ‘Nothing?’”

(Speaking of Paul and the Federal Reserve, Ralston’s Las Vegas Sun colleague J. Patrick Coolican had a strong explanatory column on the peril of Paul’s preferred gold standard earlier this week.)

In other cases, it meant pressing a candidate on his earlier comments. When it was Romney’s turn, Ralston recalled the former Massachusetts governor’s own words, spoken to the editorial board of the Las Vegas Review-Journal last October. “…Don’t try and stop the foreclosure process. Let it hit bottom,” Romney said then.

“Don’t you think they (ordinary Nevadans) are going to have a hard time relating to those comments?” Ralston asked.

Romney’s reply didn’t waver from his customary one, which is that what he calls President Obama’s “talk and do nothing” approach has only made matters worse. Without offering specifics, the candidate said he wants to “get the economy going” and “put Americans back to work.”

Rick Santorum was more specific in his answers after Ralston reminded him that Nevada is “the epicenter” of the housing crisis. The former senator suggested the government allow tax deductions “to cushion the blow” for home-owners who opt for short sales.

What followed was eye-opening.

“What do you say to these people now in Nevada who are looking for some help? …They don’t want to sell their houses. Are they just out of luck?” Ralston asked.

“You’re looking at someone who went through the same thing in the house that I’m in now,” Santorum said:

The house that I bought is worth about 60 percent of what I paid for it. Now I’m sure that’s not necessarily, you know, as bad as it is in, is here—but it’s a pretty big hit. So what I’ve had to do is take the money I’ve made and I’ve just been paying down my mortgage. And I’m not underwater anymore. It’s only because I’ve paid down the principal of my loan and just sucked it up. And people say, ‘I don’t want to hear that. I don’t want to hear suck it up.’ …The bottom line is, you have to let the market work. Anything government does will just mess it up more.

Of course, Santorum, like nearly all former members of Congress, had a healthy income to draw on as he paid down that principal. His answer may resonate—and not in a good way—with the scads of jobless folks in the Silver State, where the unemployment rate of 13 percent leads the nation. Many here just plain don’t have Santorum’s money or the economic ability to suck it up.

Ralston’s show airs statewide on TV stations in Las Vegas, Reno, and Elko. And during a presidential election year—when the public’s interest in politics is heightened—the program’s reach clearly is well beyond just those who’ll be caucusing on Saturday. That’s important, since the wide-ranging discussions included further issues of importance to Silver State residents, such as online gambling and storage of nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain.

The interviewer’s pit bull approach did occasionally lead him astray. An exchange with Santorum about Yucca Mountain led to a glib question implying the former senator favored an unguarded and insecure facility—a suggestion Santorum quickly batted down.

And Ralston is prone to interrupting mid-sentence, which—unfortunately—leaves some important answers only partially finished. Most guests go with the flow, Paul chided his host in a brief exchange that, fittingly, included an interruption.

Paul: “You don’t let me get to finish my sentence—“

Ralston: “Okay, I’m sorry.”

Paul: “—before you interrupt.”

But those quibbles aside, the interviews were an important contribution to campaign coverage—and evidence of the value skeptical, aggressive local journalism can provide.

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Jay Jones is a Las Vegas-based freelance writer who has covered political campaigns for various media outlets in the U.S. and for the BBC in the U.K.