Debate over debates a tradition in politics

Monday, June 21, 2004

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Debating about debates -- when, where and especially whether to share a stage and with whom -- is a tradition in politics.

The haggling is frustrating for organizers. The results can be exhilarating, exasperating and defining moments for candidates.

This summer, it's Gov. Bob Holden who's being called out, not only by Democratic primary challenger Claire McCaskill, but by media organizers threatening to let McCaskill have the time solo if Holden balks.

Holden campaign strategist Roy Temple said in a telephone interview Friday that the governor was willing to debate McCaskill twice, in forums offered by media consortiums in Kansas City (July 19) and St. Louis (July 20).

That would put the debates just two weeks before the Democratic primary.

"The only remaining detail is to get the precise dates worked out," Temple said. He said Holden's campaign wants earlier debates "and we will ask for those, but if those don't work, we will go with the date they propose."

Always strategy

Why earlier dates? That could blunt the impact if McCaskill outshines Holden. McCaskill spokesman Glen Campbell said no firm date means no final agreement to debate. The state auditor's campaign is eager to portray Holden as intimidated by the prospect of showdowns with McCaskill.

"You aren't agreeing to debate until you actually agree to debate on the date set and find a way to be there," Campbell said.

Strategy underlies the debating about debates.

McCaskill is considered the more polished speaker, after serving for years as a legislative debater and courtroom prosecutor. Supporters say McCaskill could raise her profile and give Democrats reason to desert the incumbent governor through strong debate performances.

Holden may not be as smooth on the stump, but even some critics say he is finding his voice, and a campaign season image, as a solitary fighter against supposed Republican legislative intransigence. His first round of TV commercials never mentioned McCaskill, denying her increased name recognition. Holden could gain in a debate if he exceeds expectations, convincing any uncertain Democrats he is ready to carry a fight to the GOP in November.

Incumbents don't like to share stages, and perhaps give challengers the perception of equal standing. There's also a chance of on-stage stumbles through misspeaking, something candidates -- especially those in the lead -- don't care to risk. Debates can give underdogs a chance to land body blows, or swing without leaving bruises.

In an Oct. 7, 1996, debate in St. Louis, then-State Auditor Margaret Kelly, a Republican, spoke forcefully -- not her usual style -- in alleging then-Gov. Mel Carnahan, a Democrat, broke his constitutional oath by raising taxes too much.

Carnahan turned Kelly's core issue of tax-cutting upside down, by stepping over and handing her a list of questions about which state services she proposed to slash while trimming collections $640 million a year. Kelly never provided specifics. Carnahan won re-election in a landslide.

It's customary to debate about debate dates. Candidates and operatives seem to think they gain if the scheduling squabbles include rhetorical eye pokes.

In 1992, Geri Rothman-Serot, the Democratic challenger to Republican Sen. Kit Bond, criticized him for accepting a debate invitation for a Jewish holiday. Bond's spokesman noted that the late Rothman-Serot, who was Jewish, had originally proposed the date.

Six years later, Bond's Democratic challenger, Attorney General Jay Nixon, snapped up 18 debate invitations on nine dates, and challenged Bond to participate in all. Bond's campaign shot back that the Senate schedule would only allow Bond 25 days to campaign in the state before Election Day -- and that he had no intention of seeing that much of Nixon.

By the way, Bond's campaign noted, one of the dates Nixon accepted was a Jewish holiday.

Bond and Nixon ended up meeting for five debates over two months in 1998. During that run, Bond's campaign suddenly announced a preference for including two little-known third-party candidates.

Nixon's campaign retorted that Bond hadn't pressed that point when the debates were being negotiated, and accused the incumbent of seeking more participants to give Nixon fewer chances to confront Bond.

On Oct. 4, 1998, Bond tried to upstage Nixon by offering to shake hands during a televised debate on an agreement to reject negative campaigning. As an incentive, Bond offered to donate $10,000 in campaign funds to a children's hospital.

Nixon said he would shake Bond's hand, then did so with a smile, but "not on that deal," complaining that the senator had already spent $2 million running ads attacking him.

Bond never had to hand over the $10,000 check to the hospital. But even without Nixon's pledge, Bond won re-election by a wide margin.

Scott Charton, Missouri roving correspondent for The Associated Press, has moderated statewide campaign debates since 1990.

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