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The debate debate: Candidates jockey for political advantage in scheduling public forums

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 14, 2010 - Amid a toxic atmosphere of attack ads, biting websites and accusations of corruption and incompetence, perhaps it's hardly surprising that the campaigns for many area candidates on the Nov. 2 ballot are still debating over whether to debate.

Likely because of the sniping, this fall's negotiations over debates are particularly tense, said Linda McDaniel, co-president of the St. Louis League of Women Voters, which has been tapped to organize or moderate many of them.

"It seems to be more combative than before," Daniel said. "Maybe it's just a reflection of the partisanship and lack of civility that we're seeing all over the country."

And the scheduling of debates has always been subject to traditional gamesmanship and political jockeying, said Dave Robertson, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

"Candidates consider whether they have more to lose than gain," he said.

So far, the two major-party contenders for the U.S. Senate -- Republican Roy Blunt and Democrat Robin Carnahan -- have agreed to one face-to-face meeting, on Oct. 15 at the Lake of the Ozarks before the Missouri Press Association.

Spokesmen for both campaigns say talks are continuing, with Carnahan's campaign adding that it hopes more debates or forums will be scheduled.

It's also unclear if any the Blunt-Carnahan debates or forums will be broadcast on TV or radio.

Behind the scenes, there's been talk that the Missouri Senate race is among a handful being considered by NBC's Meet the Press. The Sunday morning news program is spotlighting several nationally prominent U.S. Senate contests -- and their major-party candidates -- before the Nov. 2 election.

But the matter of debates also is a hot topic for less lofty contests, particularly on the regional level.

Carnahan/Martin agree to Third District forums

So far, the League of Women Voters has helped arrange for two public events next week featuring the candidates for the 3rd District congressional seat, including Democratic incumbent Russ Carnahan and Republican Ed Martin.

The first is at 7 p.m., Fri., Sept. 24 in the theater at Forest Park Community College, 5600 Oakland Avenue. The second is slated for 7 p.m., Sun., Sept. 26 in the gymnasium at the Arnold Community Center. Also participating in the debates will be Libertarian Steven Hedrick and Nicholas Ivanovich of the Constitution Party.

McDaniel emphasizes that both events will be forums, not true debates. Carnahan, Martin and the other candidates will answer questions collected from the audience and asked by a moderator, but won't engage much with each other.

Martin is pressing for more joint appearances or actual debates, but Carnahan's staff says it's unclear if his congressional or campaign schedule will allow any more match-ups.

The two also are appearing this Friday morning on KMOX Radio (1120 AM) -- but not together. Martin contends that host Charlie Brennan wanted the two to appear together, but because of Carnahan's objections, Brennan ended up featuring each candidate separately. Carnahan's camp says KMOX offered two options, and they accepted the separate-appearance option.

Meanwhile, former Gov. Bob Holden has been tapped to help facilitate a debate agreement in the heated St. Louis County executive contest between Democratic incumbent Charlie Dooley and Republican challenger Bill Corrigan.

Corrigan complained after a forum last week that Dooley appeared to be resisting debates. Corrigan has proposed at least four. Dooley has agreed to one, and spokesman Katie Jamboretz denies any foot-dragging.

"We're going to get a date set," she said. "It'll happen."

Dooley initially announced that he hoped that the one debate with Corrigan would be televised, but so far no takers have emerged.

In the 8th congressional district, in southeast Missouri, Republican incumbent Jo Ann Emerson and Democratic rival Tommy Sowers have agreed to four debates, although he is pressing for more.

The four will be in: Cape Girardeau on Oct. 11, Poplar Bluff on Oct. 13, Rolla on Oct. 17, and Park Hills on Oct. 18.

American and state political history is full of episodes where debates were seen as crucial in altering a contest's momentum or elevating one contender at the expense of another.

Robertson said a key common thread in many of those face-offs is a stronger-than-expected performance by a lesser-known challenger. As a result, candidates deemed to be in the lead may worry about the risk, he said.

When it comes to negotiations over debates, said Robertson, "Often, frontrunners are tempted to avoid the things."

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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