Columns » John Brummett

Mike, Asa choreograph their own number

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If televised debates mattered, it’d be President Kerry, except that he wouldn’t have been running because President Gore would have been up for a second term.

Perhaps, then, I’m making too much of this unprecedented debate-dictating conspiracy by the two major candidates for governor.

It’s kind of interesting how it came to be. It seems that while their partisans and the commentators often lack civility, the two fellows themselves can manage to engage in reasonable conversation.

Mike and Asa were attending one of the late spring or early summer weekend festivals, those ad nauseum celebrations of bricks or melons or frogs that are command performances for Arkansas political candidates. They bumped into each other.

One commented that requests for debates or joint appearances were pouring in. You had AARP. You had a civics class.

One or the other said the campaigns needed to get control of the situation so that schedules could be accommodated and coordinated. They agreed to put their key people together to work on rules, a format and schedule by which the candidates essentially would choreograph their debates and invite sponsors and broadcasters to buy in.

They agreed to stand by whatever they designed. Now they cite the agreement as the unfortunately necessary reason to decline any other offers.

Naturally, their plan excluded the fringe candidates, Rod Bryan and Jim Lendall.

In the past, educational television and maybe even a commercial television station offered debate times and dictated rules to candidates in showcase races. But this time, Beebe and Hutchinson have decreed by their pre-emptive cabal that they’ll go at it on their own terms and on dates and places they specify.

That would be once in Northeast Arkansas, once in Central Arkansas and once in Northwest Arkansas. Bear in mind that the Central Arkansas TV market beams throughout South Arkansas. The candidates have invited TV stations to lend a moderator or a questioner and put the thing on the air.

At this writing, only KAIT-TV in Jonesboro has firmed up for the Northeast Arkansas installment, though surely a station in Little Rock and one in the Fort Smith-Fayetteville market will broadcast one each.

AETN, meantime, has been shopping its biennial jamboree of debates in statewide races, for which it presumes to impose formats and rules borrowed from the federal commission on presidential debates. Beebe and Hutchinson, having gone their own way, and keeping their joint commitment, are declining.

Lu Hardin, the UCA president, has been trying to get through on the telephone to Beebe, his old state Senate pal, to encourage him to participate on AETN, since AETN’s events take place on his campus. The word is that he can’t seem to get Beebe’s attention.

Hutchinson’s people tell me they’re declining the AETN affair because of the agreement and a scheduling conflict, which, they say, was the very reason they teamed up with Beebe’s people in the first place. They had hoped AETN would broadcast one of their three, they say. AETN officials say the formats are a little too candidate-friendly, too much like mere joint appearances.

So, as it stands, AETN’s gubernatorial debate will pit Rod Bryan against Jim Lendall — Tweedleleft versus Tweedlelefter.

Asa’s press secretary has been trying to disabuse me of the notion that this all works to Beebe’s advantage and that Asa’s campaign has been snookered.

Beebe is the clear front-runner. He has co-opted his rival into agreeing to a series of debates with candidate-friendly formats that may not be widely telecast. His rival is prohibited by the agreement from accepting any other debates, and thus from the rhetorical advantage of saying he’s willing to debate anytime, anywhere while his opponent is hiding.

I’m wondering if this might reflect the respect Beebe and Hutchinson have for each other’s debating skills, which are considerable.

Oh, well. I need to remember where I started, with Presidents Gore and Kerry.

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