Columns » Warwick Sabin

The debate mistake

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When the story of the 2006 Arkansas governor’s race is written, the turning point will probably be traced to Aug. 18.

That’s the day Democrat Mike Beebe and Republican Asa Hutchinson announced a joint agreement on the terms of their debates.

They set a long list of very specific ground rules governing the dates, locations, format — even how the audience would dress. (“Dress will be business or business casual.”)

The first of their three debates took place earlier this week in Jonesboro, but you probably didn’t see it. It was broadcast only on the Northeast Arkansas ABC affiliate, KAIT, which didn’t even carry it live.

And that’s just one indication that Hutchinson made a serious strategic blunder in signing his name to this arrangement.

Of course, Beebe and Hutchinson equally deserve condemnation for dictating how the public will be allowed to compare and contrast their policy positions, and for excluding their other competitors in the race.

But from a purely political perspective, Hutchinson’s decision makes no sense.

He is the underdog, running behind Beebe in every poll. So for starters, Hutchinson should want as many opportunities to appear beside Beebe as possible, preferably in high-profile, confrontational situations (like debates). That offers him more chances to throw Beebe off-balance, score points and change the dynamics of the campaign.

These forums are even more important to Hutchinson because he is trailing Beebe in fundraising. By the end of August, Beebe had raised $5 million to Hutchinson’s $2.8 million, and Beebe also had more cash on hand.

That means Hutchinson will have less money available to get his message out, making free media events like debates even more valuable.

And yet he willingly went along with a formula that does not even guarantee television coverage, meaning that Beebe successfully denied his underfunded opponent additional statewide exposure.

Then there is Hutchinson’s collusion in denying Green Party nominee Jim Lendall and independent candidate Rod Bryan the chance to participate in the debates. Maybe Hutchinson worried that Beebe would appear more conservative when viewed alongside those more liberal counterparts.

However, a four-way debate would probably become a three-on-one cage match, with Lendall and Bryan trying to bleed Beebe of his liberal Democratic support, and Hutchinson challenging Beebe from the right. It would take an incredible amount of political dexterity to come out of that unscathed, but thanks to Hutchinson giving him cover, Beebe doesn’t have to worry about it.

In fact, the three-debate schedule (Jonesboro on Sept. 18, Fayetteville/Ft. Smith on Oct. 4 and Little Rock on Oct. 17) pointedly snubs the Oct. 22 forum organized by AETN, so Lendall and Bryan will have that stage to themselves. And that probably will be the only gubernatorial debate broadcast statewide.

Still, Hutchinson’s campaign spokesman, David Kinkade, thinks the arrangement is a good thing for his side, because in 2002, Gov. Mike Huckabee only agreed to one debate with his opponent, Jimmie Lou Fisher.

“The point of the agreement was to have as many debates as we could, working within the schedule we have,” Kinkade said. “Three debates give you a tremendous amount of coverage and pretty wide reach.”

Kinkade added that the debates will generate news, regardless of whether voters around the state can watch them live on television. He also said that the Beebe and Hutchinson campaigns wanted to avoid “squabbling” about debates, so they decided to set the schedule and parameters in stone.

But wouldn’t it be to Hutchinson’s advantage to make the debates an issue by demanding as many of them as possible, with all of the candidates participating and as much television coverage as possible? Not only is that the right thing to do on principle, but it would paint Beebe into a corner and earn Hutchinson more free media attention in the process.

“What’s best for us is for people to see both candidates standing on the stage together,” Kinkade replied, “and to have the two candidates talking substantively about what they want to do for the state. We think that’s a win for us.”

And that’s just the problem. By solidifying a series of innocuous, little-watched debates, Beebe succeeded in preserving the status quo — and the status quo is a Beebe lead in the polls.

That Hutchinson didn’t realize that in the first place is reason enough to doubt his ability to win.

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