Few debates planned for state races

Don’t expect Missouri candidates to spend much of their final weeks before Election Day sharing a stage and debating their opponents.

Candidates for the U.S. Senate and Missouri governor debated two weeks ago with the closely watched forum broadcast live on radio and TV. Democratic U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill and challenger Republican Congressman Todd Akin plan to debate once more in suburban St. Louis. However, both campaigns blame the other for not having more. And prospects are uncertain if there will be a second debate between Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon and Republican businessman Dave Spence.

Debates offer new details about candidates and their approach while posing relatively little political risk to the campaigns, said Eric Morris, a professor of communication and the debate coach at Missouri State University.

“The debates are very helpful for a voter because you learn a lot more from having the candidates on stage near each other in a situation in which as much as they might prep for and attempt to script for is not completely scriptable,” Morris said. “You can gain a lot of insight from them based upon what they say, what they don’t say, how they handle certain kinds of questions.”

But little risk is not the same as no risk. And discussion over debates is a regular feature of campaigns. Debates put office-seekers on a temporary equal footing, attract free media attention that helps a candidate whose coffers are lagging and can lead to self-inflicted wounds from the possible gaffe. Generally, challengers press for more debates while incumbents and those who think they are winning hold back.

In the governor’s race, Spence has accepted offers for five more media-sponsored debates while Nixon has been less eager for an encore. Spence spent much of their first debate attacking Nixon while the governor sought to defend his record on economic issues.

“Gov. Nixon values debates, and in the coming days, we’ll be in touch with the different organizations that have invited us and make a determination on the best course forward,” Nixon campaign manager Oren Shur said.

Spence’s campaign insists it is not looking for a debate about debates but that having fewer than three forums before the Nov. 6 election would be a disservice.

“The public needs unfiltered information about where the candidates stand on the issues,” said Spence’s campaign manager, Jared Craighead.

During the Republican gubernatorial primary this summer, a lesser-funded candidate pressed for more debates with Spence. There were a couple primary debates and numerous joint candidate appearances.

Farther down the ticket, no debates are scheduled for the lower-profile statewide offices of lieutenant governor, secretary of state and state treasurer.

Republican attorney general candidate Ed Martin has accused incumbent Democratic Attorney General Chris Koster of skipping out on debates. Martin plans “empty chair town hall forums” that were announced with the headline: “Chris Koster Fearfully Refuses to Face Missourians.”

The Missouri Bar has invited the attorney general candidates to debate later this month. Koster has agreed to participate, and Martin was checking whether his schedule will allow him to attend. The Bar does not plan to hold a debate if all the candidates cannot come.

Koster campaign manager Rachel Levine said there is an opportunity for an attorney general forum while noting that even the vice president candidates debate a single time.

“So many times these debates are just fodder for zingers and for ‘gotcha’ moments,” Levine said. “And what we’re trying to do is have an actual conversation with Missourians about how important the Missouri attorney general’s office is.”

Debate barbs are not likely to flip a race, but they still get plenty of attention. At one point after this past week’s presidential debate, Twitter users were posting up to 17,000 messages per second about Big Bird after Republican candidate Mitt Romney said he would cut federal funds for PBS despite loving the “Sesame Street” character.

How well that attention translates into state races is debatable. Unlike this fall’s three presidential debates, forums for Missouri candidates generally are not always broadcast on TV.

“In terms of the media attention and saturation they’re not nearly as extensively covered,” said Mitchell McKinney, professor of communication at the University of Missouri-Columbia. “So therefore, they don’t reach the same audience — even at the state level.”

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