Candidates Face Debate Dilemma

This combination of file photos shows Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., left, on April 27, 2006 and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2006. AP

By The Politico's Roger Simon.
What if they gave a debate and nobody came?

What if the media-political complex announced a presidential debate, hired a hall, sent out invitations, lined up 200 folding chairs for the press, and then the major candidates said: "Stick it in your ear. We're not coming."

That could happen this year for one good reason: Major candidates are complaining that too many states are planning too many debates too early.

Nevada has two forums and three debates scheduled already. The first one is supposed to be in two weeks, and guess where it is going to be held?

If you were Nevada and trying to lure the national media to your state, what city would you choose that guaranteed glitz, glitter and good times?

That's right. It's going to be in Carson City.

(Me, I would have held it in Vegas at the Bellagio with the Cirque du Soleil swinging overhead and Wayne Newton as the moderator, but what do I know?)

Other states have already announced their own Democratic and Republican debates, but there are two developments that might alter things considerably.

First, the Democratic National Committee is soon going to call the campaigns together to try to limit the debates. But that may not work. "It will not stop other organizations from holding debates," a DNC source admitted.

More importantly, however, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton may just say no. They might do the unthinkable and just refuse to show up.

Early debates are helpful to second- and third-tier candidates because those candidates need publicity.

But what do front-runners get from debates? Nothing but risk. They already have publicity. To the top tier, early debates are a negative, an ordeal, a chance for the rest of the pack to nip them in their rear ends.

Aren't debates the "music of democracy," however, a chance for the public to learn about important issues of our day?

Maybe they were once upon a time when the League of Women Voters ran them, but debates today must be good television and that means a snappy, quick-moving show with short answers — not soliloquies on serious issues.

I went to a slew of primary debates during the 2004 presidential cycle — the DNC tried and failed to control them — and if any of the debates were memorable, I can't remember it.

The major candidates hated them. The debates not only screwed up their schedules, but took a ton of prep time that could have been better spent going out and actually meeting voters.

The stakes at debates are extremely high because reporters attend them for the same reason people attend the Indy 500: to see who crashes and burns.

There is, therefore, an enormous priority on not screwing up. And the major candidates soon learn it is safer to stick to their stump speeches than to risk making news. The minor candidates, with nothing to lose, are free to go ballistic, play to the crowd and attack the top tier.

So why do the major candidates show up?

Debate organizers try to make the debates refusal-proof by co-sponsoring them with major media, labor unions, or organizations like the Congressional Black Caucus.

But guess what? Neither Hillary Clinton nor Barack Obama has accepted any debate or forum invitations as of yet.

"The two people who can blow up the debates are those two," an adviser to the Obama campaign told me. "All they have to do is say: 'Debate without me. Go ahead.'

"There will be some accusations that they are being arrogant, but where it is written that you have to debate this early?"

And Obama and Hillary have the perfect excuse for not showing up: They have day jobs.

"They should be voting in the Senate, not running around to the debates," the adviser said. "Hillary and Obama should band together and say, 'It is not in our interest to debate this early. We've got jobs to do. October is plenty early for debates.' "

Me, I like debates. I rack up frequent flier miles. I go to expense-account dinners. I whisper rude and juvenile things to other reporters while the debates are going on.

The debate sponsors — and they include some very powerful people and organizations — will howl like crazy if the top candidates refuse to show up. And those who refuse may be threatened with retaliation.

But just saying no always did take guts.
By Roger Simon
TM & © 2007 The Politico & Politico.com, a division of Allbritton Communications Company
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