Wednesday, July 28, 2010

It’s that time of the campaign season, Kirk complains about the number of debates

Call it one of my own personal guidelines that I follow when it comes to covering the activity of political campaigns. When it comes to debates, the first candidate to come forward and complain that “My opponent won’t debate me!” is a loser.

By that measure, Rep. Mark Kirk, R-Ill. – who is the GOP nominee for the U.S. Senate seat now held by “forced-into-retirement” Roland Burris – ought to start working on his concession speech to Democratic nominee Alexi Giannoulias (the current state treasurer).

WE’RE APPROACHING THE time period when campaign activity will kick into full gear and we will have to start thinking about debates – which are one of the key moments for an electoral cycle because they give us (in theory) a chance to see the two candidates go against each other, and operate under identical rules.

In many campaigns, the debate (or debates) is one of the high points that can influence undecided voters what to think (even if it usually is because one candidate says something incredibly stupid).

What usually happens for a high-profile race like U.S. Senate from Illinois (and Illinois governor) is that we get two debates – three if the candidates are feeling generous. It usually comes to one held in Chicago and another held somewhere in a non-urban part of the state, and is meant to be a gesture acknowledging that Illinois doesn’t end at the Cook County line.

What also invariably happens is that some candidates try to turn the number of debates into an issue. They try to claim they personally want more debates, but that their opponent is in “hiding” and trying to keep the public from knowing where he really stands on issues of great significance.

WE ALSO GET cases where candidates will ask for high numbers of debates, with the theory being that many people across the state will get a chance to have one in, or near, their home community.

The reason I came up with my rule calling these candidates “losers” is quite simple. They all lost. I can’t recall a single instance where the candidate who complains about the number of debates wound up winning.

Which is why I’m wondering what is going through Kirk’s mind these days. For on Tuesday, his campaign made public the idea that the Congressman wants seven debates – beginning Aug. 21 and running through Oct. 21.

Kirk’s people issued a statement that envisions the debates as having themes where specific issues would be brought up, and he sees them starting in Ottawa (a north-central Illinois town near Interstate 80) and winding up in Carbondale. It plays well off the idea that Illinois technically consists of 13 metropolitan areas – of which Chicago is only one (technically, Joliet and DuPage County are their own metro areas, and not part of Chicago).

IT MEANS HE wants the bulk of the debates (five of the seven, with one in Chicago and another in suburban Northbrook) held in territory where his campaign is considered the obvious choice, rather than where the bulk of Illinoisans live (about 45 percent in Cook County, and about two-thirds within the six-county Chicago area, where many are skeptical of him even though the alternative is Giannoulias).

Kirk has put himself in the position of being the candidate who is now going to cry that his opponent “won’t debate me/play with me.” I threw that last bit in because it really does come off as sounding like a whining child who can’t handle the fact that he has to “play nice” with everybody else, instead of being able to dictate to them.

Not that I think Kirk himself really wants to do that many debates. From a scheduling standpoint, that really is an awful lot of events – particularly if one insists on holding several of them in the more distant parts of downstate Illinois.

It’s about creating an issue for himself – my opponent won’t debate me.

FOR WHAT IT is worth, the Capitol Fax newsletter used its website to report that Giannoulias’ campaign is saying they contacted the Kirk people last week to try to talk seriously about scheduling debates – only to have Kirk turn around and try to make this an issue against him.

I’m not sure I believe the Giannoulias camp portraying themselves purely as an embattled victim in this brawl. But they’re not completely wrong when they say this issue is cheap. If anything, it gets in the way of having a serious debate or two on the issues.

Which really is better than having repeated debates scattered across the state. The concept sounds nice, in theory. But what can happen is that the candidates themselves are so rehearsed into trying to ignore questions and take their pot-shots at each other that it just becomes multiple excuses for political trash talk, and we learn nothing of significance.

I don't want to believe that is what Kirk really wants us (the potential voters of Illinois) to have to endure.


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