- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Democrat Gary Peters and Republican Terri Lynn Land both said they wanted to debate in their race for Michigan’s open Senate seat.

After repeated jousting, they finally settled on a sponsor but stalemated over the format. Ms. Land, a former secretary of state, insisted on a moderator asking questions, while Mr. Peters, a congressman, wanted a town hall format.

With the debate canceled, Michigan voters are left without the face-to-face showdowns that have come to define much of American political contests.

As Election Day nears, the debate over debates is also heating up. Michigan is the only state with a competitive Senate race this year where the two major candidates haven’t faced off, but that doesn’t mean the other affairs have been without controversy.

Sen. Kay R. Hagan, North Carolina Democrat, declined to participate in a debate Tuesday night, leaving the stage to GOP challenger Thom Tillis for the entire hour.

And in Florida, Democratic challenger Charlie Crist insisted on having an electric fan placed on stage to cool him down in front of the cameras, causing Gov. Rick Scott to delay taking the stage and spawning what’s been dubbed “fangate” by the press.

Frank Sesno, director of George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs, said the debate antics distract from the substance, which is even more crucial in today’s political environment, where a candidate’s image is carefully crafted at all times and a debate offers a chance to see how a candidate thinks in an unscripted conversation.

“To me, it looks silly. Candidates should agree on what the temperature of the room is going to be, set it, and that’s that. If one candidates has a fan, the other should have a pacifier,” he said.

A debate almost didn’t happen in Kentucky, as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell repeatedly declined debate invitations to face his Democratic challenger, Allison Lundergan Grimes. The two finally agreed on a single debate with Kentucky Education Television — a sponsor that traditionally hosts debates.

Mr. McConnell holds a slight but steady lead in polls in that race, and front-runners are often reluctant to debate, fearing it can only hurt them as it offers the chance for an unscripted gaffe.

“The front-runner doesn’t want to debate and often puts up barriers so high that the other person can’t debate,” Mr. Sesno said. “If you’re a legitimate candidate and your opponent is insisting on conditions around the debate to turn it into a circus, you’re not going to do that; you’re not going to allow yourself to be painted into a humiliating corner.”

Not debating, however, is fodder for attacks, with campaigns accusing their reluctant opponents of hiding from voters.

In Michigan, Ms. Land had ducked a number of invitations but was finally nearing agreement with Mr. Peters and WXYZ-TV, which was to host a debate. When the candidates balked over the format, the station proposed splitting the time — half town hall, half a moderated discussion — so both sides would get some of their preferred format.

Ms. Land accepted, but Mr. Peters refused, the station’s editorial director said.

A spokeswoman for Mr. Peters’ campaign said the congressman has called for several debates other than the WXYZ showdown, but that Ms. Land’s camp wouldn’t even meet to discuss them. Since late September, Mr. Peters has pulled away from a statistical dead heat to a solid poll lead — a 9 percentage point average advantage on RealClearPolitics.com.

Frank Fahrenkopf, a co-chair of the Commission on Presidential Debates, said it’s ultimately the voters who lose out when candidates aren’t able to put differences aside and meet in as unscripted an environment as is possible in today’s campaigns.

“If you get so tied up in arguments about rules that you don’t debate, the candidates are in effect taking from the public an opportunity to be educated on where the candidates stand. That’s an unfortunate incident,” he said.

In putting together the presidential debates, Mr. Fahrenkopf said the commission chooses the time, place, format, moderator and set of rules — including things like the temperature of the room — and gives it to both candidates with no negotiations.

Candidates are then free to negotiate anything else between themselves, and the commission respects whatever demands both parties agree on.

In a past presidential debate, for example, both candidates agreed to let the shorter candidate stand on a pitcher’s mound behind the podium so they appeared the same height on TV.

He advised organizers of state debates to take a similar stance and publicly offer a time, place and format to put pressure on candidates to either accept or say why they won’t attend.

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