ANALYSIS: Missouri congressional candidates debate debates

Sunday, August 22, 2010 | 5:21 p.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri's congressional campaigns are not quite negotiating over the shape of the table like Vietnam peace talks in 1968, but the candidates have spent a lot of time focused on discussing how to discuss.

A Republican candidate in western Missouri has written letters challenging Congressman Ike Skelton to a series of Friday forums across their sprawling district. Farther south, the Democrat running in conservative southwestern Missouri wants to hold one debate for each of the 10 counties in the congressional district.

In the St. Louis area, the Republican scheduled his own forums to debate U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan; however, Carnahan's campaign has said it learned of those debates when contacted by a reporter.

A debate over debates is a tradition in politics. Challengers frequently scratch and claw for as many forums as possible while the incumbent or candidate who's perceived to be winning tends to limit the public exchanges. Rhetoric about the debates — or lack thereof — has been particularly heavy since Missouri's primary election.

Among the most aggressive has been Republican Ed Martin, who scheduled debates against Carnahan this month to focus on "American jobs, national debt/spending/stimulus and Obamacare." Carnahan, a Democrat first elected in 2004, suggested in late July that there be two September debates with his Republican, Libertarian and Constitution party challengers.

Martin accepted the September forums but wants more. He said more frequent debates are important for both challengers and voters.

"We're pushing hard because any opportunity to be talking about the issues and focused on this race is important for us," Martin said.

A spokeswoman for Carnahan said the congressman also believes in discussing the issues.

"That's why we have taken the steps early in this campaign to reach out to the League of Women Voters so we are able to create a place where all the candidates can discuss the important issues facing Missourians," spokeswoman Angela Guyadeen said.

The debate discussion this month has spread across congressional districts from St. Louis southwest through Jefferson City to Joplin.

Democrat Scott Eckersley called a news conference Tuesday and accused Republican Billy Long of backing out of courthouse debates. Speaking outside the Greene County Courthouse in Springfield, Eckersley said "we want to get out there and mix it up, bring the message to the people so that they know exactly who they are getting."

Long's campaign said it was still seeking to work out the details of possible candidate forums and asserted that Eckersley refused to return phone calls and has sought to distract from policy issues.

"If Scott Eckersley wants to make this into a circus, then he is going to need to bring his own tent," said Royce Reding, who is Long's campaign manager.

In western Missouri, Republican Vicky Hartzler has not gone so far as to schedule debates against Skelton but is reserving time each Friday through October. She also has ideas for the format, suggesting the forums be sponsored by civic or media organizations, be limited to one debate per county and that each candidate speak for 15 minutes before taking questions from the audience.

Hartzler has sent letters and heaped criticism to pressure the veteran congressman and Armed Services Committee chairman into accepting her challenge. In a news release last week, her campaign suggested Skelton could be concerned about defending the policies of national Democratic leaders.

Skelton's campaign said the congressman already has appeared in a forum with Hartzler before members of the Farm Bureau and would participate in others this fall. The campaign said Skelton travels throughout the district each week to talk with constituents about the issues important to them.

More than two months from the November election, congressional candidates must fight to be noticed by an electorate distracted by summer vacations, the start of school and an increasingly contentious U.S. Senate campaign.

Debate discussion is an easy way to demand attention. And in an election year in which government is distrusted and proximity to the people is valued, critiques that a candidate is seeking to evade scrutiny can be even more potent.

Or it can highlight the absurdity in American politics.

For example, a California Democrat has refused to eat until his opponent for a San Diego-area seat, Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter, agrees to debate. Democrat Ray Lutz said he launched a hunger strike starting Aug. 12.

Lutz's campaign website includes a countdown of the number of days the hunger strike has lasted, a letter describing his experience and the medical steps he had taken. Lutz estimated Friday that he had lost 14 pounds and still had enough energy to work.

Several hungry Missouri candidates are salivating at the chance to pick apart their rivals during debates this fall. But so far, none are starving for the chance.

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