Inside the Capitol

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

7-10 The Great Debate Debate

MON, 7-10-06

SANTA FE -- It's the great debate debate. Nearly every campaign has them.
Seldom have we had a campaign for any office in which two equally matched candidates, both with superior debating skills, were eager to debate the issues anytime, anywhere.
Incumbents normally don't welcome debates. They may have the edge in command of issues and debating skills, but they also have an edge in the polls. So why go before the public in a forum that gives your opponent an equal chance?
Incumbents normally also have the edge in fundraising. Debates usually are put together by organizations or media outlets that foot the bill. That makes them free publicity for underfunded challengers.
So, incumbents usually run as hard as they can from debates. Normally, they end up having to agree to a few debates to keep from looking arrogant. Challengers keep the pressure on and so do television outlets, because it's good for viewer ratings.
But occasionally you will find the incumbent who can stay away from debates -- forever. Such a candidate was former U.S. Rep. Joe Skeen. For 20 years, Skeen's 2nd Congressional District challengers hounded him for debates.
Skeen's answer always was the same. Why should I give my challenger free publicity? And his opponents' response was always the same. It's only fair that you explain your record. Oh, everybody knows my record, Skeen would say.
And that was that. If voters were upset with the congressman for not debating, they never appeared to show it at the polls. He nearly always scored over 60 percent of the vote against retiring state Supreme Court justices, a retiring lieutenant governor and various other Democrat public officials. The southern New Mexico media seldom got after Skeen about not debating either.
But Gov. Bill Richardson won't be able to escape challenger John Dendahl forever. The governor may be an 800-pound gorilla, but Dendahl is at least a pit bull, although he denies it, and voters are spoiling to see some gorilla flesh fly, even if they end up voting for Richardson.
Dendahl has started his debate demands early, but don't expect to see a large number of debates. And don't expect to see them confined to one topic, as Dendahl is suggesting with the subject of eminent domain.
Although eminent domain is an important issue to major landowners, such as farmers and ranchers, it doesn't register on the radar screens of most Americans. Public officials also know about eminent domain because they use it occasionally to purchase private land for public purposes when the owners don't want to sell.
The current flap over eminent domain began with a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that leaned heavily in the direction of the government's right to take private land. Many state legislatures reexamined their policies after the Supreme Court spoke.
The New Mexico Legislature's action evidently bothered some counties and municipalities, which felt lawmakers acted without sufficient information. They asked the governor to veto the unanimously-passed bill and appoint a task force to draft something all could live with.
As this is being written, Gov. Richardson is completely ignoring Dendahl's debate demand, contending that he doesn't have to talk about Dendahl and that he doesn't worry about him.
That sounds suspiciously like what Dendahl said about state Democratic Chairman John Wertheim, a Richardson appointee, essentially. Either it is payback time for the governor or else we can expect very little communication among the candidates and political parties in the coming months, or both.
It is possible that Richardson, with a lead that appears insurmountable, may choose to completely ignore Dendahl, personally, at least until after the traditional Labor Day opening of general election campaigns. And then, the communication may be only through Democratic Party officials.
Dendahl may come to regret ever saying that he doesn't have to answer charges from Wertheim, whom he called "that boy."

Please excuse my transmission of the previous column twice. The second version, mentioning Hawking in the title, was cleaned and shortened a little.


Post a Comment

<< Home