- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 1, 2003

Democratic presidential campaign strategists and state chairmen said the crowded TV debates are impeding party efforts to develop a stronger, more focused election message and some want to limit future candidate participation.

Interviews earlier this week with campaign advisers and other party officials revealed growing frustration with the unwieldy, time-consuming nature of the nine-member debates that they say has made it hard to discuss substantive issues in any depth or clarity or to help coalesce party support around a front-runner.

“These debates are a waste of time and are not helping the Democratic Party. They are a cacophony without any particular message. They’re messy. I’ve talked to a lot of people around the country. Many feel the same thing,” said Philip Johnston, the Massachusetts Democratic chairman.

“Nobody’s watching except the inside the Beltway folks. I don’t think they have any impact,” he said.

A senior campaign adviser to one of the top-tier candidates, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said: “It’s very hard to break through the din of so many debaters.”

These and other Democrats said Thursday it was time for the bottom tier candidates to drop out so that the last two of this year’s six party-sanctioned debates — which will be held in Iowa on Nov. 24 and New Hampshire sometime later — can feature the four or five top contenders. One of those contenders likely will be the party’s nominee.

“It makes it difficult for the top candidates to get into substantive, meaty issues when there are nine candidates on the stage,” said Florida Democratic Chairman Scott Maddox.

“You are going to have to cut someone out and as the field naturally narrows, that problem will take care of itself. But at some point in the future I think you have to set some type of minimum threshold” to get into the debates, he said.

Missouri Democratic Chairman Joe Carmichael said, “The front-runners have such a limited time to debate because there are so many candidates on the platform. At some juncture, we will have to move on to smaller numbers [of participants] for the debates to be productive.”

Democratic strategist Donna Brazile said that she, too, is hearing similar complaints about the debates throughout the party. “Now is the time to narrow the field. We need an exit strategy. The next round of debates should be among a smaller group of candidates so we can hear their message,” she said.

Few in the top Democratic presidential lineup want to be seen publicly calling for a smaller debating cast for fear of offending key party constituencies. New York civil rights activist the Rev. Al Sharpton and former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois, the party’s two black candidates, Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio, and Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina are still trailing in the low single digits in most national polls, though all of them have said they have no intention of leaving the race.

But last week, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, without naming any specific candidates, attacked some of his fellow debaters as publicity-seekers with nothing substantive to say.

“I think the crowded field allows the most shrill, conflict-oriented, confrontational voices to be heard, and not necessarily the person who might make the best candidate or the best president. They’re very superficial,” Mr. Kerry told the New York Times.

Several of Mr. Kerry’s top rivals privately agree with him, but won’t say so publicly, their aides acknowledged this week. “You are not going to get any campaign to say that the two African-American candidates ought to drop out of the race,” said a campaign adviser on the condition of anonymity. One campaign strategist pointed to the snappy one-liners by Mr. Sharpton and Mr. Kucinich and said that made it difficult for “more thoughtful candidates to get their message out and to stress their differences.”

Other party leaders, such as Mr. Maddox, also suggested that new threshold rules should be instituted for the 2008 presidential election to limit who can appear in the party’s debates.

“One of the downsides of this many debaters is that you have candidates who are running on a debate strategy. This allows them, without raising any money, to be on the stage with the front-runners,” said Simon Rosenberg, president of the New Democrat Network.

“Maybe the cutoff should be how much money they raised, or some other measure. Otherwise, you will have more and more people running just to get into the debates,” he said.

But the Democratic National Committee rejected any such limits. “This is not an option for us. That’s not our job to decide which Democrat deserves to be in the debates or not,” said DNC Communications Director Debra DeShong.

Most of the candidates have talked effusively about the importance of having debates, but some of their advisers question their value.

“I’m not for any more debates, other than the ones we’re committed to, because they take a lot of time, a lot of scheduling changes. We need to spend our time on the road, talking to voters,” said Craig Smith, Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman’s campaign manager.

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