Wilson-McCarthy Debate Fades Amid Bickering Over TV Stations

Times Staff Writer

Hopes for a televised debate in the U.S. Senate race faded Friday as the campaigns of the two major party candidates rejected each other’s proposals for a face-to-face meeting in Los Angeles.

At odds over what day a debate should be held and whether it should be staged on commercial or public television, the campaigns of Republican Sen. Pete Wilson and Democratic Lt. Gov. Leo T. McCarthy were unable to agree on proposals to debate in mid-October on television stations KCET or KNBC.

As plans for a debate crumbled, the McCarthy campaign accused the front-running Wilson of attempting to hide from the voters by refusing to debate on commercial television. The Wilson campaign, in turn, accused McCarthy of “playing games” with its proposal for a debate.

The California League of Women Voters, which had been attempting for months to organize a debate on a commercial television network, abandoned its efforts last week, blaming Wilson for refusing to agree to face McCarthy on KCBS-TV.


The Republican senator’s campaign responded by lining up public KCET-TV to sponsor a debate on Oct. 17. Tom Thompson, KCET’s news director, said the station was willing to make the debate available by satellite to any other station in the state interested in broadcasting it.

But on Friday, the McCarthy campaign notified the public television station that it was not interested in a debate that would be viewed by about 120,000 house holds, KCET’s normal share of the market.

In a letter to the station, McCarthy campaign manager Darry Sragow said: “Pete Wilson is doing everything he can to avoid exposure to the voters in this campaign. If you cannotdeliver a significant statewide audience for this debate we will have to look elsewhere.”

In response, Thompson said he has abandoned any plans to sponsor the debate. “I think it’s a shame because we wanted to produce a program that would have had a significant benefit to the voters of California,” he said. “I’m sorry the McCarthy campaign is unwilling to join in this effort.”


The McCarthy campaign, meanwhile, had arranged with KNBC-TV to air a debate on the evening of Oct. 18. Although KNBC-TV had told the Democratic candidate’s staff two weeks ago of its willingness to broadcast a debate on that date, the McCarthy campaign did not pass the invitation along to the Wilson camp until Friday.

Wilson campaign manager Otto Bos said the senator could not debate on Oct. 18 because he is scheduled to hold a fund-raiser in Fresno that night with Republican Senate Leader Bob Dole.

“Why doesn’t McCarthy accept the debate as negotiated and quit playing games?” Bos asked, referring to the KCET-TV proposal. “Now at the last minute to seek a switch--obviously seeking political advantage--is utter nonsense.”

Officials at KNBC-TV said they were disappointed by the outcome and questioned why the McCarthy campaign had not notified Wilson earlier of their willingness to sponsor a debate.

“KNBC-TV’s purpose in offering time for a debate was to provide a public service to our viewing audience,” a station spokeswoman said. “Under the circumstances, KNBC-TV is uncertain about the motives of . . . the McCarthy campaign and has withdrawn its offer of air time for the debate.”

The likelihood that there will be no debate in the Senate campaign is bad news for McCarthy, who needs a face-to-face meeting with Wilson to draw the voters’ attention to his underdog campaign.

“We are desperately trying to get a debate that can be seen by voters throughout California,” McCarthy campaign manager Sragow said. “Leo McCarthy wants a debate very badly.”