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In debates, some issues more equal than others

Economy eclipses climate change, court, gays

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BOCA RATON, Fla. — President Obama says on the campaign trail that global warming "isn't a hoax," and it was one of his big three legislative priorities coming into office in 2009 along with passing a stimulus and his health care law — and the only one of those three he didn't get done.

Yet the candidates didn't get asked a single question about climate change — or, for that matter, the stimulus law — in their three debates.

Those are just some of the issues left on the cutting-room floor, along with gay rights and the definition of marriage, Supreme Court nominations, stem-cell research, marijuana legalization and other policy questions and decisions the next president will have to make.

Indeed, the Supreme Court came up just once in the three debates and had nothing to do with nominations. Constitutional limits, executive authority and Mr. Obama's use of recess appointment powers didn't come up at all, nor did the Defense of Marriage Act.

Russia, which featured prominently in the 2008 foreign policy debate, was a brief afterthought in Monday's debate. And left unmentioned were the terrorist detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and the U.S.'s policy on indefinite detention and handling of American citizens who the government believes are fighting on the side of the terrorists.

"The economy has kind of ruled the roost here, and it's kind of sucked all the air out of the room," said Heather Taylor-Miesle, director of the National Resources Defense Council Action Fund, who was waiting to see whether climate change would earn a spot in the final debate on foreign policy Monday night in Boca Raton, Fla.

Her hopes were unfulfilled as moderator Bob Schieffer left the issue unasked at all — even though he's the one who raised it in the 2008 foreign policy debate between Mr. Obama and Republican nominee Sen. John McCain.

Ms. Taylor-Miesle said it was fitting that the economy dominated the debates — it's by far the top issue on voters' minds this year, according to polls and focus groups — but clean energy and climate change are rising on the list of voter concerns.

After the second debate, moderator Candy Crowley of CNN said she had a question teed up to be asked by a member of the audience but never got around to it.

"Climate change — we had that question, to all you climate-change people. ... We knew the economy was still the main thing, so you knew you kind of wanted to go with the economy," she said on CNN.

Ms. Taylor-Miesle said that was cold comfort.

"I feel like our kids are going to look back, and they're going to be like, 'What in the heck was that lady talking about?'" she said. "'What were those men talking about? Why didn't this issue come up?'"

She said it's an issue where major differences deserve to be explored.

Issue unexplored

As with climate change, gay rights has been absent from the debate agenda so far.

When Mr. Obama was elected, he pledged that one of his priorities would be to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). The legislation, signed by President Clinton, defines marriage as between a man and a woman for the purposes of federal law. But once in office, Mr. Obama didn't push for the repeal.

Instead, his administration announced through the Justice Department that it no longer would defend the constitutionality of the law in court cases.

On the campaign trail, Mr. Obama also has reminded audiences of his rescinding of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy for gays. But in the debates, there was nary a mention of it.

In May, the president made headlines by announcing that he would support gay marriage, after opposing it earlier in his political career. But gay marriage, too, was absent from the debate discussions.

Still, a spokeswoman for a leading gay-rights group said the debates did cover issues that gay people care about, such as jobs.

"If you look at polling data on what LGBT people care about this election, then the debates did in fact address the critical issues on LGBT voters' minds, including the economy, jobs and health care," said Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Action Fund.

Although DOMA and other gay-rights issues haven't popped up, she said, "for voters who care about fairness and equality, the choice could not be more stark."

No questions on pot

Then there is marijuana legalization.

The issue pops up regularly in the party primaries when the candidates have to get much closer to voters. When the White House opens for questions online, marijuana policy regularly gets the most votes for what people want to hear about.

It has been 24 years since someone even mentioned decriminalizing marijuana in a debate — and that was when George H.W. Bush said that kind of talk was a symbol of "a deterioration of values."

The issue should have some salience this year. In 2008, Mr. Obama promised to stop federal raids on operations in states that have moved to decriminalize possession of the drug. But legalization advocates say the raids have continued.

"I think there's a disconnect," said Tom Angell, founder of Marijuana Majority, which is trying to recruit celebrities to push for legalization. "This is a mainstream majority-support issue, but politicians for some reason seem to still be stuck in the 1980s and they're afraid of being attacked as soft on crime, soft on drugs."

But in more than two decades of debates hosted by the Commission on Presidential Debates, no moderator has ever asked the question in a general election campaign.

"I think maybe a lot of journalists happen to be midnight tokers themselves and are afraid of maybe being found out," Mr. Angell said. "The general conventional wisdom is this is not a serious issue, and I think they feel in bringing this up they'll be looked askance by their colleagues."

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