Weeks after agreeing to take part in three broadcast debates before the primary election, gubernatorial candidate Kathleen Brown's campaign is working hard to minimize how many voters will see them, prompting Brown's opponents to ask: What is she afraid of?
In meetings this week with two of the three debate hosts, Brown's representatives have balked at the possibility of televising the proceedings outside the host city, according to those who attended the negotiations on behalf of Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi and state Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica), Brown's Democratic opponents.
The result: Southern California's voters, who make up more than half the state's electorate, are unlikely to see the Democrats go head to head. The three debates are tentatively scheduled for May 23 on KOVR-TV in Sacramento (8 p.m.), May 24 on KRON-TV and KQED radio in San Francisco (6 p.m.) and May 25 on KABC radio in Los Angeles (1 p.m.).
Political scholars read the Brown campaign's behavior as an attempt to shield their candidate from possible embarrassment. Bruce Cain, a UC Berkeley political science professor, said such a cautious approach is to be expected from a front-runner such as Brown.
"The strategy of keeping it to one media market is so in case she falls on her face, the damage is limited," said Cain, who speculated that Brown is seeking to use the pre-primary debates as rehearsals for possible debates against Gov. Pete Wilson before the general election.
"She's got to find her stride with respect to handling debates and creating confidence . . . that she has the knowledge to run the state," he said. "If you're dealing with a rookie, you might well want to keep the rookie on the radio until he or she develops the comfort that looks good on TV."
Larry Berg, director of the USC's Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics, said:
"To be in the second-largest media market in North America and not have a televised debate is just incredible. The voters ought to have the opportunity to make up their own mind."
Clint Reilly, Brown's campaign manager, was unavailable for comment Thursday. And spokesman John Whitehurst said he could neither confirm nor deny what had occurred in meetings that he did not attend.
Whitehurst would only say that Brown wants to participate in three regional debates, which he says will allow candidates to address local issues. He said this has been the Brown campaign's position from the outset and that it was only with this understanding that Brown agreed to participate.
But spokesmen for the other campaigns and the news director of one of the host stations said there was no such understanding.
In a Wednesday meeting with KOVR-TV in Sacramento, News Director Jim Sanders said Reilly "expressed a lack of willingness to have the debate go statewide. . . . There seems to be an opinion within the Brown camp that in the initial conversations with this TV station they made their position of 'no-statewide (debate)' clear. There is not that same recollection within this TV station."
Duane Peterson, Hayden's campaign manager, said Reilly made it quite clear that Brown would pull out if the debate were made available to other TV stations around the state.
"He said they would only do a debate if it was solely broadcast in the market of the debate," Peterson said, adding that Reilly called any other option unacceptable.
In a meeting Thursday to discuss the format of the Los Angeles radio debate, one of the KABC producers mentioned that in years past, C-SPAN has covered similar events live. According to Peterson and Monica Mills, Garamendi's deputy campaign manager, Brown's representative said she would have to check with Reilly to see if that would be acceptable.
Kim Wardlaw, who attended the meeting on behalf of Brown, was unavailable for comment Thursday. But talk radio host Michael Jackson, who is the moderator of the KABC radio debate, said that if Brown's campaign attempts to block C-SPAN coverage, he will object.
"I just don't see how a candidate can dictate which channels should be able to cover an event," he said, adding that if Brown doesn't want TV coverage she doesn't have to participate. "Two candidates are easier than three. That's my answer. I'm for freedom of the press."
Darry Sragow, Garamendi's campaign manager, said the attempt to limit the viewership of the debates makes him furious.
"Why Kathleen Brown is willing to thumb her nose at people in Los Angeles or San Diego is beyond me, but that's what she's doing," he said.
When told that Whitehurst had dismissed the issue as "the whining of underdogs," Sragow added: "Nobody here is whining. This is anger. . . . We have grown very tired of the duplicitous nature of the Brown campaign. They are constantly playing games."
Peterson, Hayden's campaign manager, characterized the furor over access as sad.
"While America is exporting democratic ideals to other nations, we're turning American electioneering into a marketing game. I don't think that's what the founding fathers had in mind."