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This Year, Tactics Vary When It’s Time to Debate the Issues

TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

Last week, Matt Fong got a message to call Darrell Issa, his rival in the Republican race for U.S. Senate.

Issa wanted to complain about some of the rough stuff in their nasty primary fight, but Fong had something else in mind. He asked Issa when the two might get together, face to face in front of a crowd, to kick around some of the issues in their Senate contest.

“His response was, ‘Well, that wouldn’t really be in my interest,’ ” Fong claims.

“That’s certainly not true,” Issa replies.

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And that may be the closest they come to a debate between now and the June 2 primary.

On Wednesday in Los Angeles, Democrats Al Checchi, Gray Davis and Jane Harman will share a stage for 90 minutes, sparring in the first--and maybe last--forum of California’s gubernatorial primary. In an added twist, reflecting the crazy-quilt politics of the state’s new “blanket” primary, Republican front-runner Dan Lungren will join the Democrats for the question-and-answer session, hosted by the Los Angeles Times.

In the glorified image of democracy, debates are convocations of the virtuous: civic-minded men and women doing battle for the hearts and minds of engaged citizens in a high-toned clash of ideas.

In reality, debates are more like peas in a political shell game--something candidates and their proxies try to manipulate to their maximum advantage.

A basic rule applies: “If you’re behind, you want to debate. If you’re ahead, you don’t want to debate,” said Darry Sragow, a longtime Democratic strategist working for Checchi.

The reason is simple. “Debates are risky,” Sragow said. “So the theory is, if you’re ahead, you don’t do anything stupid and cost yourself votes. If you’re behind, you want to provoke your opponent or opponents into making a mistake so all of a sudden you look good.”

When a debate comes together, it is most often for tactical, not benevolent, reasons. In this instance, with the governor’s race too close to call, there was a risk of being seen as the spoiler--or, worse, too chicken to show up.

Typically, “candidates debate out of self-interest,” not the goodness of their hearts, said political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe of Claremont Graduate School. “This debate is coming off because each of the candidates had a reason for wanting it to happen.”

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* For mega-millionaire businessman Checchi, there may have been greater risk in not debating, simply because it could have fueled opponents’ assertions that he hopes to buy the election with his wall-to-wall television advertising.

* For Lt. Gov. Davis, Wednesday’s event will place him on an equal footing--for 90 minutes anyway--with his rich Democratic rivals, letting him try to one-up opponents with his broad grasp of state issues.

* For Torrance Rep. Harman, the session may offer her last best chance to flesh out her campaign persona and dispel an image of superficiality.

* For Atty. Gen. Lungren, the most practiced debater of the lot, a poised performance might elevate his stature above the bickering Democrats and, not incidentally, bolster his case when he calls for a series of debates against his Democratic rival in the fall.

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At a time when candidates can seem increasingly packaged and their campaigns numbingly programmed, debates are welcomed as a rare opportunity to get a spontaneous glimpse of the true man or woman seeking office. (Never mind that the candidates spend days scripting their lines and rehearsing how to seem natural.)

“People like to see the candidates debate. They want to see something more than just their paid advertising,” said Susan Rasky, a UC Berkeley expert on campaigns and mass communication. Even more important, she added, reporters have come to expect it.

And so the candidates for governor faced inevitable pressure to meet at least once--and not necessarily because of a deep public desire to hear them extemporize on bonded indebtedness or talk about channel enlargement in the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta.

There is a bit of sport to it, as well, the same sort that draws the curious to watch a man juggling chain saws at Venice Beach. As Rasky put it: “People want to watch the candidates under pressure and see if they screw up.”

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A survey released Monday showed the significance of Wednesday’s forum. Fully 85% of likely voters said the candidates’ performances will be important in helping them make up their minds whom to vote for in the June 2 primary. Among Democrats--choosing from the larger field--the figure was 91%, according to the survey by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California.

In contrast, there has been little hue and cry for debates in the all-but-invisible U.S. Senate race.

With incumbent Democrat Barbara Boxer facing no serious challenge and GOP state Treasurer Fong too broke to yet advertise on television, the race has consisted largely of a spending spree by Republican Issa, the car alarm mogul who has already sunk millions into his primary campaign.

Not surprisingly, Fong is the one agitating for debates. “What I believe we should do is not hide behind TV commercials, nor canned speeches, but appear before the public and have questions asked of us, and be able to ask questions of each other,” Fong said.

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Fine, Issa replied. If Fong wants to appear alongside him, he’s welcome to show up at any one of Issa’s intermittent public appearances. “We’ve never ruled out debates,” said Matt Cunningham, an Issa spokesman.

*

He noted that Issa and Fong appeared together at the state GOP convention in February (after dinner on a Friday night, resulting in minimal coverage) and that Fong turned down an invitation for a joint appearance last month in Santa Barbara. “It’s a Fong myth that we’re ducking,” Cunningham insisted.

As the back-and-forth suggests, the debate over debates has emerged in recent years as a predictable campaign staple. “It’s been refined to the point where even candidates who don’t want to debate have figured out a way to portray themselves as the one who really wants to debate,” said Roy Behr, a campaign consultant working for Boxer.

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Risk or no, Behr promises that come fall, the Democratic incumbent “would love to debate.”

The terms, of course, will be subject to negotiation.


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