Candidates set for TV showdown

Gubernatorial debates will air statewide
Monday, July 19, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 11:21 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

As cartoon boxing gloves smack and animated flames spurt, a mid-Missouri TV announcer hypes next week’s Democratic debates between Gov. Bob Holden and primary challenger Claire McCaskill: “Don’t miss the Show-Me State Showdown!”

But who will actually tune in to a political debate on a warm summer evening, with sunshine casting long golden slants across baseball diamonds, swimming pools, soccer fields and patio parties?

And, just two weeks before the primary election, will the audience include many of the undecided voters Holden and McCaskill are vigorously trying to persuade?

“The research says that debates do influence those who watch them, and that’s the key, of course — the number who will actually tune in,” Bill Benoit, an MU professor specializing in political communication, said Friday.

Presumably, Democrats would be most interested in watching. The universe of desired viewers shrinks when undecided Democrats are counted. McCaskill, the state auditor, said that because Missouri allows open voting in primaries, she hopes independents and Republicans will tune in and swing her way on Aug. 3.

There is a chance for television viewers and radio listeners in most of Missouri to catch one or both of the debates, a survey of broadcasters found.

Tonight, Holden and McCaskill will meet from 7 to 8 p.m. on a stage at Kansas City Union Station. They will be questioned by representatives of the media sponsors: ABC affiliate KMBC-TV, public television station KCPT, public radio station KCUR and The Kansas City Star.

The Kansas City debate is being picked up by television stations in central, southwest and northeast Missouri, and while KMBC will air it live, KCPT is delaying it until 9 p.m. Monday, so more Kansas City viewers may see it.

“We want the audience to be able to have the kids put to bed and sit down and relax and watch,” said Nick Haines, KCPT’s executive producer.

There’s a rematch 24 hours later, from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday, in the studios of St. Louis public television station KETC, which airs the debate live. It’ll be simulcast live on media co-sponsor KSDK, the St. Louis NBC-TV affiliate, and on 50,000-watt KMOX radio and public radio station KWMU. The debate will also be shown live on public TV in southwest and central Missouri and on commercial stations in central and northeast Missouri.

Missourinet, a statewide radio network, is making the debates available live both nights to more than 60 affiliate stations, while simulcasts will also be offered live by public radio stations in Columbia and Springfield.

This much exposure raises the stakes.

“We will have, as debates go, a higher than normal audience, just because a lot of people are interested in this primary,” McCaskill said Friday. “What I am doing is unusual, and I think a lot of independents and Republicans will be interested too. Many independents don’t realize they can walk in Aug. 3 and ask for a Democratic ballot, so I hope they will participate.”

Holden said he is focusing on gubernatorial business but asked campaign staffers to “pull together material on the issues I’ve dealt with and I’ve been reading through it so I remember all the facts.

“I will be talking about my record and what I have accomplished as governor,” Holden said. “I expect that people will always want to hear what the candidates for governor are talking about.”

Benoit said the debates are important on different levels to Holden and McCaskill. He said Holden must reassure core Democratic supporters “while overcoming a lot of negative impressions about matters such as his million-dollar inauguration.”

For challenger McCaskill, a former prosecutor, Benoit said a “fine line” must be walked between strongly making points and coming across as so aggressive that she seems disrespectful to Holden’s office. Because McCaskill may not be as widely known as Holden, it’s also a chance to make a good first impression, he said.

Haines, of KCPT, said it should make for interesting television, noting that his station is preempting a serial drama about the wives of King Henry VIII. “So if Missourians tune in expecting to see Anne Boleyn losing her head in 1536 — well, we have something quite different.”

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