CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS / GOVERNOR : Haggling Threatens Chances of Debates : Wilson, Brown camps squabble over details. They cannot agree on the format for even the one encounter actually scheduled.


To debate or not to debate--that is what representatives of Gov. Pete Wilson and state Treasurer Kathleen Brown have been arguing about lately. They do not put it that simply, of course.

Wilson’s negotiators say the incumbent Republican is eager to go head to head with Brown, but is put off by her insistence that political reporters be excluded from asking questions during a televised debate scheduled for Oct. 16.

Baloney, say Brown’s representatives, who say the Democrat will happily answer questions from anyone, as long as reporters are not the only ones doing the asking. Wilson is stalling, they say, drawing out negotiations about the October debate to avoid discussing four other debates Brown wants before the Nov. 8 election.

“They want to hold on to the ball and run the clock out,” one Brown aide said.


Welcome to the perennial dance of the debate teams, an often graceless display of political choreography performed in the name of spirited intellectual discourse. To hear the current crop of candidates talk, they all want nothing more than to engage their opponents on live television. “You and I owe (it) to the voters,” Brown wrote to Wilson last month. Wilson responded: “My desire to debate is genuine. I hope yours is too.”

But this year, like every election year, relentless haggling over details threatens to prevent that desire from being quenched. Conventional wisdom says that front-runners avoid debates because they have more to lose. In the gubernatorial primary in June, Brown’s opponents accused her of doing just that. But now the tables have turned. With recent polls showing Wilson and Brown locked in a close contest, Brown has challenged Wilson to five debates.

Thus far, six weeks of negotiations have failed to hammer out a format for even one debate: the Oct. 16 forum sponsored by the California Broadcasters Assn. Wilson’s negotiators say they won’t consider other debates until the first one is settled.

Meanwhile, Sen. Dianne Feinstein and her Republican challenger, Rep. Mike Huffington (R-Santa Barbara), cannot even agree on who should make debate arrangements. Feinstein has assigned a staff member to discuss formats, dates and times. Huffington insists that he must talk to Feinstein himself.


Such quibbling is a time-honored tradition. Campaign strategists, eager to gain the slightest advantage, have been known to go to the mat over even the most trivial details: the color of the backdrop, the height of the podium, the location of so-called spin rooms, where campaign operatives seek to persuade reporters to see things their way. It may sound like bickering, advisers say, but such attention to detail ensures a fair and informative exchange.

Among the points of contention between Wilson and Brown: Wilson’s negotiators say an audience is distracting. They want a panel of reporters to ask all the questions because reporters are “independent, provocative (and) tough on both candidates.”

Brown’s team says that if reporters ask all the questions it will reduce one-on-one interaction between the candidates. An audience ensures that candidates will hear “real” questions, they say. And each team suspects the other of negotiating in bad faith.

“He’s the incumbent and he thinks he’s ahead. So from his campaign’s perspective, why take the risk of debating Kathleen?” said Kim Wardlaw, a lawyer who is leading Brown’s five-member negotiation team.


Larry Thomas, senior counsel to Wilson’s campaign, countered: “Pete Wilson has debated virtually every candidate that he’s run against in his political career. The notion that he’s running away or doesn’t want to face her is just laughable.”

According to Thomas, Wardlaw and her colleagues made it clear in a meeting Wednesday that they think “reporters just kind of get in the way, that they have these bombshell questions and can try to . . . overshadow the candidate.” Or, as Wilson campaign spokesman Dan Schnur phrased it in a statement faxed to the media, Brown’s negotiators “argued that reporters tend to hog the spotlight.”

Wardlaw countered that she has nothing against reporters, who “are generally very intelligent. (But) I also think other people who do other things are intelligent too.” She said the Wilson team had “an arrogance” about Brown’s desire for an audience.

“On more than one occasion, their negotiators said: ‘If you had real questions from real people you wouldn’t have as intelligent questions,’ ” she recalled. “I said: ‘What are you saying? That the voters don’t know what’s important to them?’ . . . If I had Wilson’s record I’d be afraid of real questions from the voters, too.”


Officials with the California Broadcasters Assn. have made two proposals, suggesting that debate questions could be asked either by a moderator or by an audience. Brown’s camp has agreed to either of those formats. But Wilson’s team has balked. A moderator would result in a “Geraldo Rivera-type format,” they say, while audiences are known for “wasting precious time better used by the candidates themselves.”

Can this debate negotiation be saved? Wardlaw admits that the process has become frustrating. The behavior of Wilson’s representatives has created what Wardlaw called “an increasingly supported suspicion that what they really want is no debates at all.”

Thomas said that characterization is unfair. “We have met with them every time they’ve wanted to meet,” he said.

Wilson will not be available to debate during September, Thomas said, because he must sign or veto what may exceed 1,500 pieces of legislation. But between Oct. 1 and Nov. 7, he said, “I’m virtually certain there’s going to be debates. Just like I think that ultimately there’s going to be another baseball game. It just takes a little bit of time.”