It wouldn’t be an authentic California campaign for governor without a debate about debates — one in which underdogs demand face-to-face televised confrontations with front-runners and the latter avoid them.
Underdogs have nothing to lose and everything to gain. If their debate demands are met, they get free exposure and opportunities to attack the front-runners.
Likewise, front-runners have everything to lose and nothing to gain, but their rejections allow underdogs to allege that their foes are democracy-averse cowards.
This year, the drill is happening much earlier than usual. With Republican front-runner Meg Whitman spending tens of millions of dollars, Democrat Jerry Brown is already playing the debate card, suggesting a three-way contest including the second GOP candidate, Steve Poizner.
But as the Democratic front-runner, Brown excludes Peter Schurman, founder of the liberal group MoveOn.org, who’s challenging Brown’s candidacy from the left.
“The voters are sick and tired of slick, phony, pre-packaged 30- and 60-second TV and radio commercials that say nothing of substance and offer only superficial solutions,” Brown declared. “Let’s instead give voters the facts and tell them how we plan to approach the goal of getting Californians back to work.”
Poizner, trailing Whitman by a huge margin in recent polls, quickly accepted. Schurman tried to horn in, and Whitman, per usual, parried Brown’s thrust.
“While Meg’s been meeting with the grass roots of California and talking about her policy positions around the state, Jerry Brown has been nowhere to be found,” spokeswoman Sarah Pompei said. “He’s not talking about any specifics or his plan for the state. Instead, he’s relying on the unions to prop up his campaign.”
Brown will continue to demand debates — he says he wants one each in San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego. He not only has nothing to lose, but as a very glib, battle-hardened politician, he feels confident he’d prevail should, by some miracle, a three-way debate occur.
However, as long as Whitman is beating Poizner and running at least even with Brown, she’s unlikely to agree. She has unlimited resources to send voters all the messages she wants, is running a tightly controlled campaign and has no reason to give Brown or Poizner some free shots.
Assuming Whitman wins the June primary, the debate game will resume later. Whether Whitman ever agrees depends on whether she ever finds herself falling behind Brown. But if Brown does gain the upper hand as the November election looms, he’ll probably become less willing to debate.
That said, some well-structured debates would be useful. The next governor, whoever he or she may be, will face an immense budgetary mess. It would be nice if voters had some clue before they cast ballots about what the winner will do.
Dan Walters’ Sacramento Bee columns are distributed by the Scripps Howard News Service.