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California's candidates for governor in standoff over debate schedule

California's candidates for governor in standoff over debate schedule
Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, left, and Rancho Santa Fe businessman John Cox. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times; Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

The candidates for California governor are debating — about how many times to debate.

Democratic front-runner Gavin Newsom’s campaign says he will commit to just one faceoff before the November election, while Republican John Cox is calling for a series of five debates around the state.

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Newsom has agreed to an hourlong debate sponsored by CNN, but has turned down offers from Fox News, the San Francisco Chronicle and others to host debates. Cox, a Rancho Santa Fe businessman, has not said whether he will participate in the CNN debate, but agreed to three others.

On Monday, Cox blasted Newsom after the lieutenant governor turned down a debate proposed by the New York Times and National Public Radio.

"Gavin Newsom hid during the entire primary and skipped nearly all of the candidate debates. The California voters I speak with feel forgotten by the political class, and I believe we ought to provide accessibility to the broadest audience possible,” Cox said, noting that the Oct. 1 CNN debate would take place during a professional football game. “Let's face the voters in real debates with real audiences, and we'll both discuss the questions California voters care about. For Newsom to call for only one debate and have that debate occur opposite ‘Monday Night Football’ is a complete farce."

Nathan Click, a spokesman for Newsom, confirmed the candidate would not participate in the New York Times debate. He countered Cox, saying that the CNN debate would be the 10th Newsom has participated in, and the fifth time the lieutenant governor and Cox have shared a stage.

The previous events were prior to the primary, when a half-dozen candidates appeared alongside one another. Much of the focus was on Newsom’s contentious rivalry with fellow Democrat Antonio Villaraigosa, and on Republican candidate Travis Allen’s embrace of President Trump.

Newsom took a 10-week break from participating in debates during the primary and was repeatedly criticized by his rivals for the decision, which appeared to have little impact on the race. He coasted to a first-place finish and has a significant lead over Cox in post-primary polls.

Pundits in both parties say it’s unlikely that Newsom’s choice to limit himself to one debate in the general election will affect his chances in November.

The move is not unusual in California governor’s races for a heavily favored candidate, including Democrat Jerry Brown in 2014 and Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2006.

In Brown’s last gubernatorial election, GOP candidate Neel Kashkari — who, like Cox, had never held elected office and largely self-funded his campaign — challenged the incumbent governor to 10 debates. Brown, who is advised by the same consultants now assisting Newsom, agreed to one debate — at the same time as the National Football League season opener. Brown’s campaign also successfully dictated terms for the faceoffs, including whether candidates could stand during the debate (they could not).

“… Governor Brown was smart,” Kashkari wrote in a post-mortem of the election published online the day after the election. “His campaign unilaterally negotiated debate parameters with the media sponsors, resulting in as small an audience as possible. Very few voters saw the debate because it aired on a few public television stations — at the same time as the first NFL game of the season. While the debate itself was conducted fairly, I hope future debate sponsors are less deferential to incumbents and give challengers input into debate parameters. It is in voters’ interests to have as much information as possible about candidates.”

GOP strategist Rob Stutzman said Newsom’s decision to do a debate insulates him from charges that he is hiding from voters.

“That just seems like a very conservative, safe strategy. It certainly is a defensible strategy — when you’re ahead, you don’t do anything to lose,” he said, adding that even if Newsom made a mistake in a debate, it is unlikely to affect the trajectory of the race.

But Stutzman said he was surprised when Newsom — an ambitious politician who might have his eye on higher office — opted against taking part in a debate co-sponsored by the New York Times and moderated by Dean Baquet, the paper’s executive editor (and the Los Angeles Times’ former editor).

“The New York Times would obviously be very prestigious from a national perspective,” he said. “I would think he has other objectives that would want to take advantage of some big stages if they’re offered.”

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A spokeswoman for the newspaper said it was still in event-planning discussions with the Newsom campaign, but did not disclose details.

Bob Shrum, a former Democratic operative who is the director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC, said Newsom’s strategy makes sense for two reasons: voters are not particularly focused on the governor’s race, and the move gives Cox one less shot at free airtime.

“He just doesn’t want to give any oxygen to Cox, and if I was still in the business of advising people, I think you can make a good case that he shouldn’t be,” Shrum said of Newsom. “It gets people upset, especially journalists, but it has no impact on voters. He’s doing [a debate] opposite the football game. That will not be a highly watched debate. The other reason it won’t be a highly watched debate is because people don’t have much interest in the race in the sense they don’t think it’s a race.”

Democratic strategist Garry South recalled that during the 1998 governor’s race, when he advised former Gov. Gray Davis during his first gubernatorial bid, the campaign initially scheduled five debates, but canceled the last one due to lack of interest.

“Nobody cared,” said South, who advised Newsom on his short-lived 2010 campaign for governor. “Griping about there not being enough debates is always the lament of the loser.”

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