California’s campaign for the U.S. Senate may not include a single debate between the major party candidates, Republican incumbent Pete Wilson and his Democratic challenger, Lt. Gov. Leo T. McCarthy. This is a deplorable situation because, if the campaign continues on its present course, voters will have very little on which to base their decisions except for paid television advertising.
The story is a familiar one. Early in the campaign the candidates declare their willingness--or eagerness, even--to debate each other, subject to details like the date and the format. Alas, the details often prove fatal.
Such seems to be the case now as the League of Women Voters has proposed to sponsor a debate in Los Angeles on either the night of Oct. 11 or Oct. 13, following the first presidential debate. But Wilson now says, through an aide, that he expects to be busy attending to Senate business in Washington on those dates and will not be able to take part. The senator earlier had agreed to the Oct. 13 date, said Carol Federighi, state league president, but said that Oct. 11 was not possible. McCarthy could do Oct. 11, but probably not Oct. 13.
There certainly is precedent for an incumbent not wanting to debate--particularly one like Wilson, who is running far ahead in public-opinion polls. Incumbents often view debates as bonuses for lesser-known opponents, giving them public exposure that they otherwise would not have. Wilson can say that he wanted to debate but that it was far more important to the voters of the state that he be in Washington doing the job that they elected him to do.
Not that McCarthy is totally free of blame. The League of Women Voters expressed frustration with McCarthy as well, saying that the lieutenant governor had declared his willingness to debate anytime, anyplace, but then found some dates to be unacceptable.
Meanwhile, the Senate campaign is almost invisible except for occasional television spots. Coasting on his lead, Wilson is spending most of each week in Washington, coming to California to campaign on weekends. McCarthy has had few public appearances because he has been forced to spend so much time raising money to buy television time.
Under such circumstances, a debate is especially critical, and the league should not give up its attempts to sponsor one. Neither candidate should be allowed any excuse for declining to appear. The Senate can conduct its business for one evening without Wilson, and California will not be harmed as a result. This far in advance, McCarthy should be able to reschedule any campaign commitment, as surely his supporters will understand the importance of a debate to his chance for success. The highest priority right now is that voters have an opportunity to see the candidates discussing the issues face to face, without prepared scripts.