Debate void in U.S. Senate race will leave voters in dark

Debates are occurring in hotly contested races for the U.S. Senate all across America. With a one-seat division and the latest polls showing that as many as nine races are so tight as to be within the margin of error, there's plenty for Americans to consider. With President Bush's entire agenda on the line, both foreign and domestic, the stakes couldn't be higher.

In South Dakota the candidates are debating.

In New Jersey the candidates are debating.

In Minnesota the candidates are debating.

In Tennessee the candidates are debating.

In Arkansas the candidates are debating.

But in Missouri, they aren't. In fact, the Show Me State -- fiercely proud as we are of our reputation for having others show us they're worthy of our support -- stands out for not being able to hear from the candidates for our precious seat in the U.S. Senate.

Candidate Jim Talent went on record last spring, offering to debate Sen. Jean Carnahan twice a month. Carnahan declined, saying that she would be open to debates after Congress adjourned in October. Until then, she said, her focus was on Senate business. Since then, as pressure began to mount, Carnahan made a show of agreeing to a couple of debates on and after Oct. 24. And one of these is to be on the air of a Jefferson City radio station not known for a gigantic listening audience.

In the above-listed examples, all but Tennessee involve incumbent senators who, unlike Carnahan, have already debated their opponents. They did not choose to plead the press of Senate business until the very end.

Recent history is instructive. In 1998, our senior senator, Kit Bond, debated his opponent, Attorney General Jay Nixon, five times. By this time, Bond-Nixon debates had already occurred, with at least one in August. (A personal note: In a 1996 re-election effort, facing a little-known opponent who had never run for office, this writer arranged to debate him in all six counties I have the honor to represent.)

From Sept. 26-28, members of the Missouri Press Association will gather at the Lake of the Ozarks for their annual fall meeting. In every recent even-numbered year in memory, the editors and publishers from every corner of Missouri have heard from the major candidates for statewide office in joint appearances.

Not this year. After months of hem-hawing, Carnahan finally announced she would stiff the editors and publishers. (Carnahan confines herself to carefully scripted appearances such as the Sept. 15 dedicatory speech she made at the new Cape Girardeau Central High School.)

This rejection of a nearly always accepted invitation came about the same time Carnahan rejected the invitation of NBC's "Meet the Press" for a joint appearance with Talent before the famously tough Tim Russert. Why not showcase Missouri, and her candidacy, on this historic forum? Her spokesman's lame response: "Most Missourians are in church" on Sunday morn.

Months have gone by since Southeast Missouri State University and C-SPAN extended to both candidates an invitation to debate. Talent promptly accepted. Carnahan declined. Talent has accepted countless such invites.

Well, what about it? Will Missourians re-elect a senator so bent on not discussing the issues with her opponent as we seek to decide who might best represent us at this crucial hour in world history?

Peter Kinder is assistant to the chairman of Rust Communications and president pro tem of the Missouri Senate.